September 19, 2014
Film Review: This Is Where I Leave You

Dir. Shawn Levy
Score: 3.8

God lament the Hollywood family ensemble. Of late, these films seem to take one of two divergent paths: Extreme melodrama, bordering on pathological (August: Osage County); or weak-minded, simpering comedies, which strive to be equal parts mirthful and heart-felt. Shawn Levy’s limp dramedy is clearly in the latter category, pulling together a bunch of wacky siblings along with their outspoken mother, to sit Shiva for their dearly departed father for the requisite seven days. Such is the nature of this film that only two of the sibs even seem remotely like they could be related, and all their accumulated emotional baggage gets washed away in a giant wave of well-meaning platitudes. Wade through this muck at your own peril.

As typical of the genre, the filmmakers have at least cobbled together an impressive cast. There’s Jason Bateman as Judd, in the kind of role he has perfected over the years: a peace-keeping middle brother who tries desperately to keep his more wild sibs in check as they rail and fight and crash against each other. He also may still be harboring longings towards a beautiful childhood friend, Penny (Rose Byrne), who’s living in the area. There’s Tina Fey, playing Wendy, the lone sister in a squadron of boys, a mother of two young children, a wife to a flatly unemotional type-A workaholic (Aaron Lazar), who has exactly one scene where his phone isn’t pressed to his ear.

There’s also Paul (Corey Stoll), the fiery oldest brother, whose wife (Kathryn Hahn) and he can’t conceive a child, despite their ever more desperate attempts. This leaves Phillip (Adam Driver) as the young wildcard brother, who shows up for his father’s funeral late, careening down the cemetery road in a black Porsche, blaring out dance music, with his much older former therapist (Connie Nielson) in tow as his new near-fiancé. And holding the whole nutty clan together, Hillary (Jane Fonda), the author of a popular tell-all memoir about the raising of her family, and who has a propensity to speak openly about her late husband’s sexual prowess in unconventional settings because her character needed something to do.

Naturally, everyone has a problem at the beginning of the film: Judd has just found out his wife has been sleeping with his boss, the tiresome radio blowhard Wade (Dax Shepard); Wendy has a contemptible husband and a still-yearning love for Horry (Timothy Olyphant), their across-the-street neighbor, permanently brain damaged after a car accident back when they were madly in love as teenagers; Paul has infertility issues; Phillip sleeps with everything that moves, and so on. Just as naturally, each and every one of these matters is addressed and brought to a close, ad nauseum, by the end of film in a series of ever-more unendurable scenes of denouement. Director Levy working from a script by Jonathan Tropper, based upon his own novel, is determined to leave no stone unturned, and no ham-handed symbol not fully realized by the closing credits.

It’s the kind of film that inexplicably keeps the candles on a birthday cake perfectly alight despite being whisked all across a large apartment until such time as the man holding the cake — in this case Judd, who has walked in on his wife and boss physically bonding in his marriage bed — sees fit to dutifully blow them as a last paean to his eviscerated marriage. And that’s not even the worst the film manages to conjure up: In the course of things, we’re treated to an impressive array of totally hackneyed symbols and totems. Judd, ever risk-averse, laments that he’s never swerved off the interstate to head up north to Maine, even though he’s often wanted to try it (and when this moment does indeed come to pass — and God knows, it’s coming — the interstate signs have been changed to read “New York” and “Maine” as your directional options, just to hammer the incredibly obvious point home with one last suplex); the house has a faulty fuse box that serves as a kind of magic conduit between Judd and his dead father, who insisted on doing all the electrical wiring himself.

Even if strong casting is the one thing the film firmly establishes for itself, you have to question some of the production’s tactics. The siblings bear no resemblance to one another, in their physical nature as well as their emotional dealings. Tina Fey, while a phenomenally gifted comic writer and limited performer, still isn’t, technically, an actress, so giving her a deeply emotional roll that forces her to emote through several tearful scenes is absolutely not playing to her strength. Nor is giving Olyphant, a handsome, charismatic man given to quick deadpans and jolting energy, the thankless roll of emotional mascot, the one who suffers irrevocable loss and still can’t remember what to do with the wrench he just got out of the toolbox.

In fact, as derided as the aforementioned August film might have been, I would personally take its take-no-prisoners venom and family vitriol over this kind of simple-minded “Modern Family” style pabulum in a trice. Neither one is particularly much good, but at least one isn’t insulting your intelligence with the most blandly uplifting possible outcome in every scenario, all while “challenging” its main protagonist to change up his game and avoid the too obvious and safe approach to life. Of the two, I’ll gladly take the film that (at least up to its dreadful, tacked-on ending) stuck to its formidable guns and at least attempted to practice what it preached. 

September 19, 2014
Film Review Link: A Walk Among the Tombstones

September 19, 2014
Toronto festival: The superlatives

September 17, 2014
Overheard at the Toronto International Film Festival | Ticket

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
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