Wednesday, September 30, 2015

TIFF 2015 Review

The question is unavoidable, but recurrent. I get it year after year at the Toronto International Film Festival: “What’s the best thing you’ve seen?”. In this list-crazy society, obsessed with best/worst comparisons, people want to know which movie of TIFF 2015 is likely to be best remembered. The choice is easy for me: Lazslo Nemes’ Son of Saul. is a holocaust movie shot from the POV of a concentration camp prisoner forced to burn the bodies of gas chamber victims after leading them to the trap. The movie is an immeasurable accomplishment with scenes of staggering beauty and incredible pain. It is perhaps the only indisputable masterpiece I saw at the fest.
This year’s edition of TIFF didn’t seem to have as many of the hot sales that happened last year. A last-minute bidding war is, however, currently happening for Equals, a sci-fi romance starring Kristen Stewart. The film received mixed reviews, but the bidding war is said to be at around $16 million as we speak. Remember last year when Paramount decided to buy Chris Rock’s Top Five for the impressive sum of $12.5 million? That didn’t turn out so well. As of this writing, not even Michael Moore’s pro-socialist documentary Where to Invade Next has found a buyer. Many highly-touted movies had a tough time getting traction. Several that came into town with a slew of expectations were received with a polite meh and emerged with their Oscar dreams battered.
The Telluride-effect, was at its peak this year as Steve Jobs and Carol — not to mention Suffragette — decided to bypass TIFF altogether by going to Telluride and New York. The sighs that greeted the would-be contenders had enough effects that it had many critics already talking about NYFF more than ever before, with Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, Zemeckis’ The Walk, the aforementioned Steve Jobs and Carol all being screened there, New York will be a major factor in shaping the race. With sadly no one title breaking out in spectacular fashion, critics have been generally leaning towards Spotlight being the unofficial winner, but Room’s Audience Award win a week ago has shifted the game. Lenny Abrahamson’s Room is the real deal, a hypnotic labyrinth into dark humane feelings. Based on Emma Dongue’s best-selling book of the same name, it features awards worthy performances from Brie Larson and 8-year-old newcomer Jacob Tremblay. The best way to watch the film is by knowing as little as possible, the tonal shifts are too major to reveal anything, but do know it is one of the very best movie I’ve seen so far this year.
It is no surprise both Spotlight and Room actually debuted at Telluride. However if one born and bred TIFF film did emerge it was without a doubt James Vanderbilt’s Truth. The film works like a morality play for our times, using the journalistic approach Vanderbilt used for his Zodiac screenplay to great effect. The cast is unanimously perfect, but the standout is Cate Blanchett, exceptional as 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes. The Martian is another one, an unabashed popcorn movie that had everyone cheering for Matt Damon’s astronaut. The first half has the lost astronaut trying to survive the red planet. With nearly no dialogue, save for his video journal, we watch Damon’s astronaut try to survive in the harsh confines of the red planet. He builds his own crop (wait until you see how) and manages to survive while his crew heads back to earth thinking he was wiped out by a debris storm. In its best moments The Martian has brilliant, almost silent moments that bring to mind a hybrid of Castaway meets Gravity.
Safe for the already mentioned Blanchett performance, the acting at TIFF was great. Julianne Moore was superb in two movies (Freeheld, Maggie’s Plan), Ben Foster deserved praise for his portrayal of Lance Armstrong (The Program), a movie that had its entire cast become contenders (Spotlight), Johnny Depp made a strong comeback (Black Mass), Alicia Vikander outshone Eddie Redmayne and became a star (The Danish Girl), and Brie Larson gives her career-best work, and meets her match with brilliant newcomer newcomer 8-year-old Jacob Tremblay (Room).
Idris Elba also gave career-best work in Beasts of No Nation. Dealing with child soldiers in an unknown African country, this is a movie that means to provoke and it does. The young actor Abraham Atta gives a striking debut as the young child soldier, but Elba, bulked up, in sunglasses and a paramilitary officer’s beret, acts his guts out. Towering would be the right word to describe his performance. Buoyed by Dan Romer’s dazzling, dreamlike score, Fukunaga creates moments that recall a young Terrence Malick.
One of the best reviewed movies was Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa. What is there to say about it that hasn’t already been said? I’ll leave it to Sasha for an eventual full in-depth review, but writer-director Charlie Kaufman has crafted a unique work of art. The film is a frustrating, but brilliant portrait of a man that doesn’t see the good in people. He is lonely, isolated and miserably unexcited about humanity. That is until he meets a woman who breaks the mold for him. Since this is Charlie Kaufman there is a ton of neurotic existentialism. The movie is essentially episodic in nature, with around 10 set-pieces -most of them working brilliantly, but even those that don’t give us important clues to the story’s overall mystery.
The film is a look at the fleeting nature of attraction and Kaufman seems to be dealing with a lot of personal issues in the screenplay. It’s no stretch to say Kaufman’s state of mind is clearly not very Zen and the film seems to be a therapeutic way for him to deal with his inner demons. Oh and did I mention it’s all done in stop motion animation? Beautifully rendered and created. It’s been a great year for feature animation, with this summer’s Shaun of the Sheep another standout. Kaufman doesn’t lose control of his movie the same way I felt he did with Synechdoche, NY. The film is riddled with small details that watching the film once is just not enough. I can’t wait to see it again.
If a few of the big Hollywood productions disappointed, there were some real foreign gems that had people talking: Chili’s The Club, Denmark’s Men and Chicken, France’s Evolution and Eva Husson’s Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) will all be festival regulars from now until the end of the year. However, nearly all of the 10 best movies I saw at the TIFF had already screened at other festivals earlier in the year: Cannes, Telluride, Venice and even Berlin are represented in my list. Sundance favorites James White and The Witch — both harrowing, but brilliant movies — also had impressive followings.
1) Son of Saul
Lazslo Nemes’ masterpiece reinvents the Holocaust movie by focusing more on the psychological nuance of the tragedy rather than just shock. If there was a better, more artistic movie at TIFF 2015 I didn’t see it.
2) Anomalisa
A work of brilliant genius from Charlie Kaufman. The film is a look at the fleeting nature of attraction, all done in stop-motion animation and with enough imagination to shame most of its live-action counterparts. It’s also very touching.
3) Victoria
Sebastian Schipper’s high-wire act of a movie is more than just a stunt. Shot in a single 138-minute take, it’s a grim, but powerful look at a Spanish girl named Victoria who meets 4 men in the wee hours of the night in Germany and embarks on a harrowing journey with them.
4) Room
Lenny Abrahamson proves 2014’s Frank was no fluke by directing Brie Larson and newcomer Jacob Tremblay in a film that starts off as a disturbing thriller, but becomes an even more disturbing, engrossing psychological study.
5) Truth & Spotlight
Two brilliant journalism dramas that had the critics going nuts. James Vanderbilt’s Truth featuring an incredible performance by Cate Blanchett. Tom Mccarthy’s Spotlight with spot-on screenplay and the best ensemble of the year so far. It looks like a Redmayne vs. Keaton race all over again.
6) 45 Years
The unraveling of a 45 year marriage is devastatingly delivered onscreen by British filmmaker Andrew Haigh and a never better Charlotte Rampling performance that deserves all the praise in the world.
7) Deephan
The Palme D’or award winner from director Jacques Audiard is one of the very best immigrant dramas in recent years. Jesuthasan Antonythasan stars as an ex-Tamil fighter that frees Sri Lanka with two women he doesn’t know to France. They pretend to be a family, but realize the violence has followed them there.
8) Beasts of No Nation
38-year-old Cary Joji Fukunaga follows his triumph in True Detective with an absorbingly raw take on African civil war. Idris Elba owns the screen in a career defining role as the commander of child soldiers. Dan Romer’s dazzling, dreamlike score and Fukunaga Malick influenced direction make this an incredible experience .
9) Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story)
Directed by promising director Eva Husson, this unflinching and mesmerizing French film has early day Sofia Coppola’s style mixed with Larry Clark’s Kids. An absorbing look at promiscuous high schoolers and the way sexual experience has changed among the new generation of teenagers.
10) Sicario
Denis Villeneuve’s best American movie is not easy stuff. Detailing America’s war on drugs it presents to us a new action heroine in the form of Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer. The action is relentlessly brilliant, but the repercussions and themes hit us just as hard.

Monday, September 21, 2015

TIFF: The Lobster, Dheepan, Black Mass

The rain’s been pouring the last two days at TIFF but hopefully the skies will clear before this year’s Telluride giants arrive to build on the buzz they created a few weeks ago. I’m looking forward to the way Spotlight, Beasts of No Nation and Room will fare with everyone here.
This time last year in Toronto, everyone was talking about Whiplash, and the thunderous applause it garnered at the Ryerson theater. This year it’s all about three Cannes favorites: Sicario, Son of Saul and The Lobster. Everywhere you go people are asking if you’ve seen these three movies. They are the standouts of the fest thus far, but there are still 5 days of premieres left and we’re all hoping for a surprise to take over the fest and get some fresh buzz going. James Vanderbilt’s Truth is said to be that movie, if you believe the select few who have seen it. We’ll know for sure as early as Tuesday when the press screening will take place at the Scotia Bank theater.
Johnny Depp gives his best performance in almost 10 years in Black Mass. He’s almost guaranteed a nomination, but prospects for the film are uncertain. Director Scott Cooper lets Depp take change of the proceedings as Irish gangster Whitey Bulger — a role that ticks all the boxes for Depp to finally win that much eluded Oscar. We already knew that just by watching the trailer a few months ago. Joel Edgerton co-stars as the FBI agent — who happens to be Bulger’s childhood buddy — and convinces the gangster to become an informant for the FBI. Edgerton is actually a talented filmmaker in his own right. He directed this summer’s sleeper The Gift, a superb movie.
The Lobster is a wholly original vision by Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos. It will be divisive for many reasons: When Sasha saw it at Cannes she wrote “I don’t know if Lanthimos got baked to write The Lobster but it does seem like the stoned ramblings of someone brainstorming about an imaginary world where people must form couples or else be turned into animals.” The first half of the film is great, before it narrows its focus a little too tightly in the second half. That’s been the main observation by many who saw it at Cannes and it is my main issue as well. Lanthimos is a true talent, Dogtooth is one of the great movies of the past half decade. He encompasses and creates worlds unlike any other. Did he get super baked to write this picture? If so, more directors should meet his dealer. The visual and surreal nature of the first hour is a breath of fresh air, the hotel in which these strangers stay in is gorgeously thought out and a world which I wish the film dealt with at greater lengths. This is a film that is truly a breath of fresh air amid some of the stuffier Oscar fare playing here.
The Danish Girl premiered at Venice but did not travel to Telluride. Directed by Tom Hooper, it stars Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, one of the first persons known to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Surprisingly, the role shares many similarities with Redmayne’s Oscar-winning turn in The Theory of Everything, focusing on a marriage where the wife makes extraordinary concessions for her husband’s sudden dramatic crisis. Redmayne’s performance in The Theory of Everything was harrowing and brilliant. In his second run in a row for Best Actor, he’s more tender, gentle and sensitive. Hooper shoots the film exactly as you would expect him to: safely, dependably, elegantly and somewhat guardedly. Although Redmayne’s performance will be the main attraction for most people, attention should be paid more thoroughly to his co-star Alicia Vikander who gives a brilliant performance as Gerda Wegener, the wife. Vikander is a star in the making, just like Felicity Jones was in Theory, and provides much needed artistry to the film’s masterpiece theater setting. The subject matter is provocative, Redmayne’s transformation is convincing, Vikander is hot and an actress to be reckoned with.
Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan won the Palme D’Or this year at Cannes and caused a slight backlash because of it. Don’t listen to the critics; this French film is top notch. It features a great performance from lead Jesuthasan Antonythasan, who plays a former Sri Lankan Tamil warrior fleeing his native country along with two Sri Lankan women, seeking refuge in what they think is a peaceful neighborhood in France. Many refugees in the film have lied to get away from the civil war in Sri Lanka. Dheepan and his companions pretend they are a family of three, but in reality they are not father, mother and daughter. Understandably, there’s ample reason for tension between the three of them, which is clearly felt in every scene.
The film tells what transpires when title character, a former Tamil Tiger, takes a job as a caretaker in a crime- and drugs-ridden apartment block in the Paris suburbs. Many immigrants have fled the strife of their own country, only to find themselves embroiled in deadly struggles of a different kind. As a caretaker of a rundown building, Deephan is faced with problems he clearly doesn’t see coming, since the place has been overrun by gangsters who conduct their business with brutality on a nightly basis. This doesn’t sit well with the main character, who’s clearly dealing with a case of PTSD, so he decides to take matters into his own hands. In the end, the peaceful caretaker Dheepan is forced to become a fierce fighter once again.
The film is raw and one of the very best to address the Sri Lankan Tamil conflict. Audiard has sometimes struggled to give his great films a proper climax (A Prophert, Rust and Bone) and Deephan is perhaps another example of that. The last several minutes may be divisive, but the resonance the film leaves for the viewer is rare in cinema these days. It provokes, asks questions, and provides an emotional experience that is hard to shake.

TIFF turns into Cannes

The first two days of screenings in Toronto have yet to reveal any irresistible standouts. The films that premiered at Cannes seem to be the biggest draws so far, but it appears the most promising fare at TIFF will roll our over the next few days. Each of the three premieres that have been screened thus far — The Martian, Demolition and Where to Invade Next? — were met with solid approval, but none of them seem to have taken off into the same stratosphere as Carol, Spotlight, Beasts of No Nation and Steve Jobs at Telluride. As it stands now, that’s the situation. No film has caught fire with particularly strong buzz, but that will hopefully change soon as more movies are unveiled.
After its bow at Cannes, where it got mostly positive reviews, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario finally had its North American debut. The 3 o’clock screening at the Scotia Bank theater was as packed as any screening could get. The line stretched outdoors and the excitement was palpable. Villeneuve is French Canadian. Along with Xavier Dolan, Jean Marc-Valleeone, he’s one of the major Quebecois directors who have broken through the Hollywood system the past few years. All three are artistically driven filmmakers who seek to make art out of commercial films.
Sicario has been compared to Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic for its investigation of the Mexican drug cartel. That’s where comparisons should end. Sicario is a whole other beast, relying heavily on atmosphere, a pulse pounding score and Roger Deakins’ beautfully gritty photography. Emily Blunt, in the best performance of her career, is a SWAT team agent who gets promoted by a task force official (Josh Brolin, in a meaty role) to follow him through various danger zones of Mexico and learn about the nitty gritty goings on. Benicio Del Toro is a mysterious consultant hired to assist in the case, a man who doesn’t speak the whole truth and fully reveals himself as the story goes along. It’s his best role since 21 Grams and elevates the pulpy material to intensely real levels.
Villeneuve shoots the whole thing like a pro, giving us epic wide screen shots that take advantage of the breathtaking locations and his always gloomy visual style. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay (his first; he’s known primarily as a TV actor) has bumpy stretches, especially when the action takes a break, but the cast and crew elevate the drug drama into something artistic and twisty. It’s a good thing them that Sicario’s action sequences are refreshing, plentiful and the highlights as they encompass a wide array of claustrophobic feelings and put you right in the thick of the action, especially in a scene involving a raid inside a secret cartel tunnel. Blunt becomes an instant Best Actress hopeful playing the muscular, take no bull heroine Kate Macer. She has long been one of the most underrated talents in the industry, but here, given a juicy leading role, she brings it and proves her worth as an actress of considerable power. If The Devil Wears Prada, Edge of Tomorrow and Looper proved anything to us it’s that this actress has that extra something special most actors would die to have: good looks, personality and an immeasurably true talent. With her piercing blue eyes and bulked up physique she owns Sicario from beginning to end.
* *
Michael Moore’s film — Where to Invade Next? — is a casual, lightly amusing look at various countries in Europe that have adopted protocols and laws that seem to be right up Bernie Sanders’ alley. Not a bad thing altogether, but often eccentric. Moore’s doc is the first film he’s shot almost entirely outside the United States. Unlike his other documentaries, the message is broad and all over the place, but the ideals and rights he stands for are important — his point being we could all put our egos aside and perhaps learn a thing or two from these neighboring countries. France has a chef cooking up the lunch menu at the public elementary school cafeteria, Slovenia has free College education, Italy makes their workers take 2 hour lunch breaks and 8 week mandatory vacations a year, and Germany teaches its students about their country’s worst deeds, particularly the Holocaust. If you’re someone who’s been turned off by Moore’s style of filmmaking before, then this movie won’t convert you. It might not come close to reaching the peaks of Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine or Fahrenheit 9/11, but Moore is first and foremost an entertainer, an artist who takes his subject matter very much to heart. At of tonight the film still had no distributor, but it will surely get one before TIFF is over.
* *
The press got its first look at Jean Marc Vallee’s Demolition, a film that had been expected to be a big player for this year’s awards cycle before it was pushed to a 2016 release date. Vallee is a unique talent who’s French Canadian films like Cafe de Flore and C.R.A.Z.Y are well worth seeking out, he’s a visual stylist who concentrates a lot of his time in the editing room to try to get the right flow to his movies. A good example would be last year’s Wild which had a very organic non-linear narrative.
Demolition uses the criss-cross Vallee editing technique to tell the story of recently widowed husband — played by Jake Gyllenhaal — who therapeutically decides to demolish and repair various things, much to the chagrin of his father in-law played by the excellent Chris Cooper. Yes, that plot alone is filled with obvious metaphors about trying to start over and rebuild, but the film is surprisingly light on its feet and has a very redemptive feel to it. All that aside, I found Gylenhaal to be the reason to watch Demolition. He’s great and if this had been released in 2015 I’d say he would have had a decent shot at a nomination given that he was robbed last year for his career-best work in Nightcrawler.
In my view, the film gives the great Naomi Watts short shrift. She plays a lost soul who compliments Gylnehaal’s character a little too well. She isn’t given much screen time, in fact her character disappears for a long stretch only to suddenly come back near the end. As uneven at it may be, the film has artistry that I found as commendable as Vallee’s other two American films (Dallas Buyers Club and Wild). His use of music has always been there in his style, and in Demolition he uses certain passages of music to reinforce a state of mind or a mood that one of the characters might be feeling. There’s an especially amusing use of Heart’s “Crazy On You” which is very well done.
* *
Lazslo Nemes’ Son of Saul is a holocaust movie shot from the POV of a concentration camp prisoner forced to burn the bodies of gas chamber victims after leading them to the trap. The movie is an immeasurable accomplishment and the best directed movie I’ve seen this year, alongside George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. There are scenes here of staggering beauty and incredible pain, sometimes we wince and sometimes we just can’t look away at the filmmaking on display. This isn’t your typical holocaust movie, it doesn’t intend to only shock as much as just put you right there with the lead characters as they work the chambers, furnaces and ovens.
The movie opens with Saul finding out that the last group he led to the gas chambers included his 7-year-old son. Saul is a man so persistent in giving his deceased boy a proper burial that he risks his life and the lives of his co-prisoners just to find a proper rabbi for the kiddish ritual. His risk-taking can sometimes be maddening, but there is something to be said about a man who still believes in keeping his tradition and religion intact even in the face of unspeakable horror. The Jews around him are building up a resistance and are prepared to fight, but Saul seems completely aloof, focusing instead on finding a rabbi and having a burial.
Using hand-held camera can sometimes end up being damaging to the overall narrative of a film, but here it compliments the story and gives it a fresh spin. The fact the first time filmmaker Nemes was just 28 when he wrote and directed this masterpiece speaks volumes about his talent. Some scenes are so deeply realized and profoundly thought out that it feels like you’re in the hands of veteran master. The film uses its camera to find dizzyingly surreal moments for its characters and supplies a uniquely original take on a used up cinematic genre.
At Cannes it came as a shock to many critics when Son of Saul lost the Palme D’Or to Jacques Audiard’s Deephan. I’ll be talking about that movie next week when I interview its star and director.

Notes from TIFF

A strong showing at Telluride and TIFF can build important awards buzz for foreign films. That’s happened for Son of Saul, still the best film I’ve seen at this fest, as well as another international offering frequently buzzed about, Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. Telluride has yet again assembled a concise, essential lineup. Most of the big films getting buzzed about here first premiered at Telluride (Beasts of No Nation, Anomalisa, Room, Spotlight) but several essential movies were left to open at TIFF.
Here are some notes about TIFF’s fourth and fifth days:
1) Spotlight is the real deal
Add Spotlight to the shortlist of best of the fest. Nobody expected it to not do well at TIFF, but the standing ovation it got at last night’s premiere was the icing on the cake. This is very much a movie to be reckoned with and the one American movie that has succeeded the most so far this festival season. It doesn’t have the dark, stylized musings that David Fincher brought to Zodiac or Michael Mann to The Insider, but this is a movie’s movie with a strong screenplay, by Josh Singer and McCarthy, and moments that demand your complete attention. If there was anything that this movie taught us over the last few weeks it’s that there still is a demand for newsroom dramas, but more importantly well-made 1970’s cinematic era inspired dramas.
McCarthy’s previous films, Win Win, The Station Agent and The Visitor are among the best movies of their respective years and deal with characters that are as fleshed fully out and humane as any out there. It helps that McCarthy is a part-time actor and understands the craft. His obvious knowledge of the acting brings out one great performance after another in this movie. Best of all is Michael Keaton, who’s having a hell of a comeback and giving the Academy another good case for Best Actor acknowledgement.
2) The Program is actually a very good movie
The range of reviews for Stephen Frears’ Lance Armstrong movie have been perplexing, but there’s no doubt in my mind that The Program is a fantastic artistic statement. Frears directs a never better Ben Foster, who plays the controversial cyclist who ran a doping program for the entire U.S Postal team. Armstrong beat testicular cancer and ended up winning seven straight Tour de France titles, albeit doped. Instant hero worship followed and a massive Nike campaign to fight cancer blinded people of his sins. Foster is a towering force of nature that owns every scene and builds a menacing presence in every frame of the film. He deserves best actor notices, and carries the film which is helped by Frears’ subtle direction that recalls his other true life story work in The Queen. The Program tries to get to this fascinating man’s psyche and Foster creates a complex cinematic villain for our times. We knows the story very well and Frears knows that, so he decides to build a character study that focuses on a man that at times even convinced himself that he was telling the truth.
3) The Meddler is Susan Sarandon’s best performance in 20+ years
You heard me right. Sarandon’s performance as a middle aged, eccentric, neurotic, Jersey mom that moves to L.A. is hilariously spot on. The premiere had many industry people eating up every line delivered by Sarandon. When was the last time you can truly say she’s had a role that fit her immeasurable talents? 1995’s Dead Man Walking — in which she was directed by then husband Tim Robbins — comes to mind. That was 20 years ago, but this performance is bound to get some heads turning if handled properly and Sony Pictures Classics knows what kind of brilliant performance they have here. The character study that director Lorne Scafaria deftly handles with comical hand-held shots is an all out showcase for Sarandon. The film has just been screened today for the press and is expected to have a 2016 release, that is unless the studio decides to gives Sarandon the much-needed awards push this year.
4) Freeheld and Maggie’s Plan have put Julianne Moore back in the race
Moore is again sublime in Freeheld, the true story of New Jersey police officer Laurel Hester, who fought to have her pension benefits transferred to her domestic partner (Ellen Page) after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Why wouldn’t she be great? There is no surprise that she delivers emotional nuance and definitely helps invigorate the film. She also steals the show for her supporting role in Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan. Moore plays an uptight danish oddball that divorces Ethan Hawke’s elusively perplexing writer, after he meets and cheats with Greta Gerwig’s much younger Maggie. The role for Moore is pure deadpan, recalling Maude in The Big Lebowski, but a little weirder/crazier. It really is the sign of a great actress when you can switch back and forth between drama and comedy and make it look so effortless. Moore is utterly fearless and we are lucky to have such a talent to behold.
5) Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) is the under-the-radar movie that has everyone talking
This is a movie that gave me the same vibe as the first time I saw Larry Clark’s Kids. A dozen or so sexually promiscuous high school kids decide to take advantage of a friend’s parents being out of the town and organize orgy parties they nickname “Bang Gang”. Director by Eva Husson, the film is unflinching and mesmerizing. It’s got people talking here and that is quite the achievement given the fact that more 300 movies are being screened in 10 days. It truly is a modern love story showing us how sexually liberated today generation is and their misguided attempts at finding love or some kind of freedom. I find it’s better than Larry Clark’s movies, more subtle in fact, and can sometimes encompass a world of emotions in a single frame.

TIFF Preview

Landing in Toronto always feels like home. I’ve been coming to the Toronto Film Festival for more than four years now, but the vibe here always stays the same: excitingly frantic. The weather is beautiful, it still feels like summer, and the overall excitement can sometimes be contagious. During the next ten days countless screenings, interviews and after parties will be happening, so will lack of sleep and hundreds of media writers scrambling to meet deadlines. The days start early and end late, but everybody’s here for the movies. In fact, people here get drunk off movies; there’s a who’s who of press and industry people here, but Torontonians seem to catch the high as well. Tickets aren’t cheap for some of the galas, but it’s pretty common to meet people who have bought a dozen or so tickets to the showings.
Most industry people come here straight from the other fest that has been stealing TIFF’s spotlight a bit lately. Telluride is more than just a film fest, it’s a getaway retreat that doubles as a film fest. Some films skip TIFF altogether and opt to launch their campaigns in the more relaxed atmosphere of the Colorado ski resort town. Last year’s Best Picture winner, Birdman, went the Telluride route, which I’m sure didn’t please Toronto organizers one bit, but the fact remains that the last five Picture winners have had their debut over there. Toronto isn’t necessarily relegated to being the sub-par fest: the program they have each and every year is tremendous, a dreamy feast for cinematic lovers everywhere, and quite possibly the most comprehensive of any in the world. More than 300 films from 60 different countries will be screened over a span of 10 days.
There are many questions that still remain to be answered and there are movies premiering which might potentially stir up the race and make us all rethink who’s ahead and who’s not. Last year, The Theory of Everything had its debut here, which won Eddie Redmayne the gold. Julianne Moore’s winning performance in Still Alice also had its debut at TIFF. There are so many movies on the program that surprises are bound to happen in spades, maybe every day, and my peers at the fest would love to catch the next big thing. As I am writing this, these are 10 of the most buzzed movies premiering on King Street:
1) The Martian
Director Ridley Scott returns to the genre that made him an auteur to be reckoned with (Alien, Blade Runner). That’s why this film is at the top of my must-see list. It stars Matt Damon as an astronaut who is presumed dead, but who tries to survive until somebody realizes that they need to rescue him. The L.A. Times had a chance to catch a work-in-progress screening of this one and loved it. Based on the popular novel of the same name by Drew Goddard, let’s hope this is the Ridley Scott of Blade Runner and not of Exodus.
2) The Program
When Stephen Frears does biopics, watch out. The Queen was a brilliant film and Philomena was a rousing crowd-pleaser. Both got Best Picture nominated and both bowed at Toronto. The Program is about Lance Armstrong’s doping controversy and stars Ben Foster as the seven-time Tour de France champion. Frears is one of the best filmmakers of the last three decades with an eclectic filmography that includes My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things and The Queen among his very best.
3) Our Brand is Crisis
Many people thought David Gordon Green’s Our Brand is Crisis would premiere at Telluride, but it didn’t. TIFF nabbed the premiere of the film, which is about the American political campaign strategies used during the ’02 presidential elections. The cast, which includes Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie and Ann Dowd looks great on paper. David Gordon Green’s time has also come to shine, as this could be the movie that finally brings him to the forefront of the Awards conversation. His stunning debut was George Washington, which he directed when he was just 25 years old. Ever since then, he’s had his ups and downs, continuously switching back and forth between indie (All The Real Girls, Joe) and Hollywood (Pineapple Express).
4) Truth
I love newsroom dramas. When done right, this genre can truly churn out classics (All the President’s Men, Zodiac, The Insider). Spotlight is the one to beat this fall, but James Vanderbilt’s Truth looks to steal its thunder at this year’s fest. Vanderbilt’s directorial debut stars Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, and Dennis Quaid in a film based on 60 Minutes’ investigation of then President George W. Bush’s military service, which led to a controversial firing. Redford plays Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett is Mary Mapes. I also forgot to mention that Vanderbilt wrote the Zodiac screenplay. I’ve got high hopes for this one.
5) Where to Invade Next
We had no idea Michael Moore was filming a new movie, so it came as a shock when he announced the TIFF premiere of Where to Invade Next. Covering the subject of Infinite War and its consequences, here’s to hoping that we get something fresh from Moore whose last couple of documentaries (Sicko, Capitalism) did not get as much praise or make as much money as his previous ones (Bowling For Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11).
6) Demolition
I might regret putting this one on the list, but for now the pedigree of the cast and the filmmaker at the helm more than makes up for the delayed 2016 release of Jean-Marc Vallee’s Demolition. Why did the film get pushed over to next year? The industry has been scratching their heads ever since Fox Searchlight Pictures made the move. Coming off his awards circuit triumphs Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, Thursday night’s screening of Vallee’s film might make things a little clearer for us… or it might not. One thing’s for sure, if the film is well received by the press, why wouldn’t it go for that prestigious 2015 release date? Naomi Watts and Jake Gyllenhaal star.
7) Freeheld
Ellen Page, Julianne Moore, Steve Carrel and—the always great—Michael Shannon star in a film that deals with LGBT relationships, pension benefits and terminal cancer. Oscar bait much? Freeheld does have the potential to be something very special; Moore’s turn last year at TIFF for Still Alice won her the gold, and the relevant topics that the film presents might be too much for critics to ignore. Director Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) directs, from a screenplay by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia).
8) I Saw the Light
Loki stars as Hank Williams in a film directed by the producer of The Thing and Robocop remakes. This could work. It worked last year when long-time producer Bill Pohland premiered the Brian Wilson picture that he directed, Love and Mercy. It was a great movie that came out this year with very good reviews. Tom Hiddleston looks like a dead-on Hank Williams and Elizabeth Olsen — always welcome in my books — plays Mrs. Williams.
9) Trumbo
We all know Bryan Cranston can act the living hell out of a TV role, but can he carry an entire movie? I think he can, and in Trumbo he’s given a great shot to prove himself as a leading man. Cranston stars as the real-life Dalton Trumbo a 1940s Hollywood screenwriter who gets blacklisted for his political beliefs. It all looks just great, with a cast that includes Diane Lane and Helen Mirren among many others. Jay Roach, yes that Jay Roach of Meet the Parents and Austin Powers fame, directs based on a screenplay by John McNamara.
10) Stonewall
One of the more curious entries at this year’s fest will be director Roland Emmerich — THE disaster movie expert—bringing his newest picture Stonewall to the festival circuit. This is the first time he’s brought one of his movies to a major film fest, which means Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, White House Down, 10,000 BC, Universal Soldier, and Independence Day were never chosen for anything. Surprised? Stonewall recounts the famous 1969 riots that took place in a Greenwich Village neighborhood, a riot known as the single most important event that lead to igniting the LGBT movement.
Already we know three buzzed movies from Telluride will not be making the trip to Canada: Carol, Steve Jobs and Suffragette. One of these could easily become an Oscar frontunner, especially Carol, which is bound to be the critical darling of 2015 and for good reason: Todd Haynes’ movie is a beautifully shot masterpiece that features career best work by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and has socially relevant themes at its core. Haynes’ Far From Heaven in 2002 could not lure Oscar, with not even a nomination for Dennis Quaid’s phenomenal performance. Carol is more accessible and more part of the current zeitgeist than Heaven was — the buzz is already deafening. Steve Jobs I have not seen, but the early reviews have been promising and have established Fassbender as a force to be reckoned with in the Best Actor race, which is turning out to be, yet again, filled up to the brim: Fassbender, Leo, Redmayne, Hardy, Elba and McKellen seem destined for a possible nomination, but many surprises await and many will get knocked out of the final five.
Spotlight and Beasts of No Nation will look to continue the incredible best picture buzz from just a week ago at Telluride and Venice. Whereas Tom Hardy in Legend, Johnny Depp in Black Mass, and Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl would love to lock up an acting nomination with another strong showing of screenings, in just ten days’ time we’ll have a much clearer picture of the race and where we’re at.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Sundance 7 Months later ...

The best movies that come out of Sundance are the ones that, on second viewing, maintain the exhilarating high you had when you first saw them high atop the thin rocky mountain air of the resort town. Remember when in 2002 Tadpole was bought for a ton of money then made 3 million dollars worldwide? Yeah, it’s just that kind of festival. People get high off the movies, then months later forget they ever existed. There must be something in that air. However, the fest’s rich history with discovering small, indie gems has not been lost the last few years. In fact, if an indie movie does become a breakout hit at the box office, chances are it most certainly debuted at Robert Redford’s three decade old film festival. If we look back on Sundance history we will also find another trend: Best Picture nominees. Since 2009, when new rules for the number of Best Picture nominees were instated, there were only two years in which no Sundance movie was nominated. In the past 6 years, 7 films that premiered at Sundance have made it on the Academy’s Best Picture slot.
2014 Whiplash
2014 Boyhood
2012 Beasts of the Southern Wild
2010 Winter’s Bone
2010 The Kids Are All Right
2009 Precious
2009 An Education
As we stand now, here are the films that came out of the 2015 fest with the most buzz and critical chance:
Me, and Earl and the Dying Girl
Diary of a Teenage Girl
The End of the Tour
The Witch
Of these, it would seem that Brooklyn is most likely to get Best Picture attention although there are opportunities for others in various categories. One of the best of the bunch is The Witch, which sadly is only slated for release next year! A real shame if you ask me. Robert Eggers’ haunting and spooky film was far and away the best movie I saw from Sundance 2015 and the one with the most potential to be a critical darling. Brooklyn is already being talked about as a contender, but it’s going to need a steadfast critical push. Quite a few of these “class of 2015” films have already been released this summer. All are worth checking out as counter-programming to many mindless and mind-numbing summer releases. The creative work that emerges from Sundance is the reaso I hope that this festival will always exist.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was bought for more than 8 million dollars back in January, collecting the Grand Jury Prize and Sundance Audience prize in the process. As mentioned, recent Jury Prize winners include past Oscar nominees Whiplash, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Winter’s Bone, and Precious.Sadly, its one of those outstanding films that didn’t find its audience, racking up only 6 million dollars at the box office and puzzling the industry as a whole. The film may not be as great as the aforementioned past prize winners, but it’s still undeserving of the neglect that has emerged i the wake of its June release. The film, a sort of indie take on The Fault in our Stars but better, had high expectations laid upon its post-Sundance shoulders that were unwarranted, but it deserved a better fate. I wish we had more movies that dealt with friendship, adolescence, and illness with such visually aesthetic wonder and a heart as vast as the sky. I’m sure this isn’t the last we’ll hear of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, a visually gifted filmmaker.
Tangerine, an ultra-low budget film shot on an iPhone for chump change and directed by Sean Baker, comes at you like an exhilarating force of nature. It doesn’t care if it shocks you or riles up your senses. It’s a fervent product of Sundance and one of many indie summer releases that first premiered over there this past January. It’s an imperfect movie but one filled with abundant energy in its every frame. Groundbreaking is the right word, for it is ultimately the first of its kind: a film shot on an iPhone with transgender actors taking on leading roles. Witness how evolving awareness of transgender issues has sparked a wealth of fresh cultural expressions. Jeffery Tambor is gut wrenchingly great in TV’s best show Transparent (with Fargo not too far behind if you must know) and if you haven’t heard of Caitlin Jenner then you’ve clearly been living under a rock. The film takes place on Christmas Eve in California and deals with a transgender sex worker who just finished serving a short sentence in prison and finds out her pimp/boyfriend cheated on her. She obviously doesn’t take the news very well and sets out to find the “fish” he cheated on her with. What ensues is a screwball comedy that never winces; in fact, it bites. It’s a hell of a good time, but more importantly it’s incredibly stylish filmmaking . Of course the fact that it was shot on an iPhone already makes it an important milestone film, but the L.A subculture that it introduces makes it all the more fresh and happening.
Tangerine is only the latest example of a Sundance movie that is as relevant as ever. The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a formulaic title for a startling movie, deals with adolescence, but more importantly growing up female in the 21st century. Directed by tough as nails filmmaker Marielle Heller, the film is not afraid to showcase the awkward bits of pains that come with growing up. It also features a great performance from Brit newcomer Bel Powley, whose first words of dialogue in the movie are “I just had sex”. She’s 15, and the guy is her mom’s 40-year-old boyfriend. The images that Heller crafts, sometimes painted on, are from her own pure imagination and she’s definitely a talent to watch. The pacing can sometimes be a little shaky, but the fearlessness of it all is what makes the movie worth a look. Heller is trying to show us how it feels to be a teenage girl coming to grips with adolescence in the midst of chaos that adults can sometimes inflict. It’s not easy. Earlier this year the 35-year-old director was chosen as one of Variety’s 10 directors to watch, and they are right. The most awkward phase a girl will go through in life has been told countless times in cinematic terms, most notably in Todd Solondz’ great “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” but never this way and never with such blunt truthfulness.
Another new release that deals with politically relevant issues is Dope. The film exceeded expectations by racking up $17 million at the summer box office — on a micro budget of $700,000. It is a smart and bewildering film. It aims to break past racial stereotypes that are ingrained in us all by playing with our ability to predict what’s going to happen next. With a title like “Dope” and an all-black cast, what the movie wants you to expect and what it actually delivers are complete opposites. Its main character Malcom is a smart, articulate high schooler who happens to be living in the Los Angeles “hood” Inglewood. His love for the ’90s and un-hip past trends make him the ideal target for high school bullies. He wants to go to university and the movie is narrated as he reads his college application letter. When he’s “forced” to deal drugs in unexpected circumstances, he makes sure to break the fourth wall and tell the audience not to judge because of his color. Director Rick Famuyiwa who directed the ill-received Brown Sugar and Our Family Wedding seems to want to reinvent his style and make more meaningful fare. Dope is an occaissionally messy movie that has some pacing issues, but it nevertheless is a good start.
Jason Segel’s potential Best Actor nomination has been talked about at great length the past few weeks with the release of The End of the Tour, a talky almost existential movie based on David Lipsky’s best-selling memoir “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself”. It is an account of Lipsky’s five-day touring interview with “Infinite Jest” author David Foster Wallace. The film was made by people drunk on words. Taking clear inspiration from Linklater, director James Ponsoldt who directed the lovely Sundance hit Spectacular Now, lends his film an organic vibe that translates into an admirably well-intentioned and resonant effort. Jesse Eisenberg compliments Segel by playing Lipsky in a very Eisenberg-esque way: full of neurotic twitches and quickly delivered dialogue. Segel, a 35 year old whose high points have come in goofball comedies such as I Love You Man and Forgetting Sarah Marshall pulls a Jonah Hill by completely transforming himself into a seriously great actor. The chemistry he and Eiseinberg have is great and the conversations never less than smartly written and concisely thought out.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

YA movies

Turning Young Adult novels into feature films has been all the rage this decade. Never has the prospect of adapting a YA novel to the big screen been so profitable for Hollywood. Just this past month Paper Towns came out to decent reviews, then Dark Places to less than decent. If looking at the Hollywood's current itinerary is any indication, we have more YA movies coming out this fall: a movie based on R.L Stine's hugely popular Goosebumps series, and the final chapter to the Hunger Games Franchise. There's much more to come, but here are a few that got it done right and helped the Young Adult film movement advance into the 21st century.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

It is not surprising that the best, most expertly made movie of the Harry Potter franchise is The Prisoner of Azkaban. All credit must go to the best director to have helmed a Potter movie: Alfonso CuarĂ³n. The director of Children of MenGravity and Y Tu Mama Tambien used his visual wizardry in this 2004 movie. This is when the Potter books got dark, gritty and went a completely different direction. Based on J.K Rowling's wildly successful series of books, Azkaban has Harry and the gang trying to deal with Sirius Black, frenetically played by Gary Oldman, a man whom they believe is out to get revenge on Harry for his imprisonment.

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008)

Adapted from Rachel Cohn and David Levithan's darkly giddy novel of the same name, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist plays like a Young Adult version of Martin Scorsese's underrated 1985 picture After Hours. Just like Scorsese's picture, this film takes place in the wee-wee hours of the night in New York City. Michael Cera and the infectiously adorable Kat Dennings play strangers of the night who have just met. Nick is trying to figure out where his favorite band's secret show will take place, while Norah is searching for her missing drunken friend. Director Peter Stollett makes sure the film lives up to its stylish source material by infusing it with - as he stated - "the best music you haven't heard yet". The result is a compulsively likable movie that romanticizes the after hours.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

The Hunger Games is like Battle Royale but tampered down for the Young Adult crowd. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Proof can be found in the second installment of the movie franchise which was a clear improvement from the first one and upped the ante in terms of drama and action. Author Suzanne Collin's mega-popular series of novels benefited from the casting of Jennifer Lawrence, an indie queen at the time who stunned critics in the film Winter's Bone. In Catching Fire Lawrence seems to finally be comfortable with her new-found mainstream popularity by embracing the role of Katniss Everdeen. In the film, Everdeen, having won the Hunger Games, returns home but realizes the battle for a democratic state has just begun and that another set of pivotal games is about to happen.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2011)

Stephen Chobsky's novel about a shy, wounded, introverted high schooler named Charlie is a singular achievement in its own right.. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a staple of the YA form and a well-written ode to young outcasts everywhere.  It helps that Chobsky actually wrote and directed the film, with an uncredited John Hughes helping him out! The words come out like fine wine, as does the tone of the movie, which retains the dark, melancholic feel of the source material. The cast was also thoughtfully chosen: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller invest so much into their roles that they have no problem whatsoever fully fleshing out their characters. The friendship these three form in the movie is refreshingly real: Every detail and every line of The Perks of Being a Wallflower is sheer perfection.

The Spectacular Now (2012)

If there is a theme that we keep running into with the films on this list, it's that they are almost all "coming of age" stories, a staple of the YA novel. The Spectacular Now is in fact that, but so much more. Based on Tim Tharp's novel of the same name, the story's protagonist, Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), is a national book award finalist. He is also the guy you want at your party, a charming teenager so high on living for the moment that the viewer might be tricked into thinking all is right in Keely's life. It's not. He has no plans for college, no clear set career, carries a flask filled with alcohol everywhere he goes, and seems content with his job folding clothes at a retail store. Of course his girlfriend breaks up with him, but soon after he meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley) and a new relationship begins. Teller and Woodley are phenomenal in showing us the ups and downs of a relationship that was doomed to fail from the start, and director James Ponsoldt - right now on a career high with The End of the Tour - keeps the novel's moral reality check intact.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

Having won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl came out this summer with a slew of expectations. The film deals with a teenager who has stage IV cancer and focuses on a friendship that was doomed to fail just because of the diagnosis. If that plot description isn't reminiscent of The Fault in Our Stars, then what is? That's where comparisons should end, though. Jesse Andrews wrote the novel and ended up writing the screenplay for the movie adaptation and the film plays out almost like an anti-Fault in Our Stars.  It skips the love story and decides to concentrate on the oddball characters that populate the story.

The Princess Bride (1987)

One can understand why Rob Reiner’s movie adaptation of William Goldman's fantasy novel was such an enigma when it first came out in 1987. It was supposed to be primarily aimed at the YA crowd but ended up pleasing all ages with its deadpan, Monty Python-esque humor and a bold, satirical narrative that never took itself too seriously. However, the love story deftly told by a grandfather to his ill grandson about a beautiful princess called Buttercup who gets kidnapped is a touching one. What works in Reiner’s tale - just like in the novel - is that every character is a delight, and there isn’t a dull one in the bunch. Most importantly, the true heart of the story is Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya as a heroic swordsman with a secret and a debt to settle – “Hello, My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

Friday, August 21, 2015

Summer Movie Report Card 2015

“Mad Max: Fury Road” & “Inside Out”
Summer 2015 might very well be seen as the return of the classic summer blockbuster. Just like in 2008 when The Dark Knight and WALL-E blew audiences away as twin pinnacles of pop culture triumph, two movies this year have again changed the game in regard to action and animation. “Mad Max” ramped up the way action can be done, shaming every superhero movie in its path and creating a new language for the genre. “Inside Out” showed us that an animated film for kids could be visionary, trippy and audacious enough to inspire profound analytical essays. “Mad Max’s” nihilistic outlook on human nature and a nasty, in-your-face style, was very much George Miller’s personal triumph through and through. The amount of detail that he brought to every frame was obsessively meticulous, as was the editing by Margaret Sixel, which – as things now stand – deserves serious consideration for next year’s Film Editing Oscar. As the brainiest, trippiest movie Pixar has ever made, “Inside Out” is mandatory viewing for any psych student.
“Amy” & “The Look of Silence”
With respect to non-fiction films it’s impossible to choose between two drastically different documentaries. “Amy” is virtually the first of its kind, a tragic examination of the late singer’s life, composed entirely of footage shot by Amy and her friends and directed and assembled with immeasurable passion by Asif Kapadia. The late 27-year-old singer/songwriter was an unmatched talent but tormented by the most torturous inner demons imaginable. This compulsively watchable film exemplifies the next evolution in documentary, one in which each key milestone of a life is recorded with phone or camcorder by the subject herself, and then this wealth of first-hand material is shaped by a talented director into a touching portrait. Kapadia doesn’t show talking heads as they’re being interviewed; instead he lets us listen to the interviewee while Amy’s personal footage plays in counterpoint onscreen. Don’t be surprised if we get more of these kind of documentaries in the years to come, as we seem to be part of a generation that wants everything recorded and instantly mementoed.
“The Look of Silence” is Joshua Oppenheimer’s sequel to “The Act of Killing,” and he once again addresses the Indonesian genocide of the mid-1960s that killed millions. If the first film dealt with the perpetrators this one is about the victims, as a man who lost his brother in the killings tries to track down the perpetrators through research and in-your-face interviews. The truth isn’t easy and a final confrontation had me almost looking away, but the interviews are the highlights as they bring back a past that most of the perpetrators are in denial about. If there is a more important, contemplative, and meditative film about human nature this year, I sadly haven’t seen it. This isn’t an easy watch, but it’s an essential one. It represents one of the reasons I hope we all go to the movies — to face hard truths and cold facts that might otherwise be forgotten. Oppenheimer is quickly becoming a world-class filmmaker with these important films and the potential significance they bring to society is almost beyond words.
Paul Dano & Ian McKellen
Paul Dano embodies Brian Wilson so brilliantly in his performance that you may actually forget you are watching a movie. Giving us another memorable performance, his depiction of Wilson is that of a wide-eyed kid being slowly stripped of his innocence by obsessive artistic creativity. His absence is clearly felt whenever he’s not on screen, as is the freewheelin’ nature of the “Pet Sounds” recording sessions where the actor basically becomes Wilson: a man so possessed and infatuated with getting the perfect sound that it ultimately became the tool of his undoing.
Ian McKellen delivers an equally impressive performance as a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes in “Mr. Holmes.” Although the film itself may strike some as slight and is mostly focused on one character, McKellen understands how to make these aspects work to his advantage, creating a portrayal which is nothing short of mesmerizing. With his natural wrinkles serving as craggy foundation for the extra decades added by make-up magicians, 76-year-old McKellen portrays a Holmes suffering from a failing memory and a case that still haunts him to this day. No offense to Benedict Cumberbatch, always great as our modernized Holmes, but McKellen seems to inhabit this iconic character as perfectly as it’s ever been seen onscreen. Many of us still say to this day that he was robbed of the Best Actor prize back in 1999, when he broke our hearts in Bill Condon’s unforgettable “Gods and Monsters,” losing to Roberto Benigni. With Mr. Holmes, McKellan is in an excellent position to grab his third nomination.
Charlize Theron, “Mad Max Fury Road”
Charlize Theron & Lily Tomlin
All hail, Charlize Theron as the baddest of badasses. Proving that her win for “Monster” was no fluke, the 40-year-old actress owned George Miller’s action extravaganza as Imperator Furiosa. Despite the franchise title, the Fury Road wasn’t about Max, it was about her, and even in the quieter moments, not many of them, she found a way to say so much with so little dialogue. Her face weary and worn, but her spirit undiminished, she is an Ellen Ripley for the 21st century, a role model that we want follow anywhere she takes us and of course the empress of all things awesome. The feminist subtext of the film might have turned off a few too many fanboys, but isn’t that another reason to love this performance?
If I say that 75-year-old Lily Tomlin has never been better than in this phenomenal movie by Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy) would you be impressed? Well you should be, because Tomlin’s had a phenomenal career: “Nashville,” “The Late Show,” “9 to 5,” “All of Me,” and “Flirting With Disaster” have all had a little Tomlin-esque spiciness sprinkled at their core and all the better for it. What she does in “Grandma” is heartbreaking and nothing short of astounding. She brings the spiky, zesty nature she’s always been known for, but plays with our emotions until we reach a finale that seals the deal on the truly amazing quality of her work. I went into the movie not knowing much about it, so I’ll allow you the same benefit. But expect a torrent of awards love to come her way in the months to come. The film opens in theaters next Friday.
“Shaun of the Sheep” & “Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation”
It’s almost not fair to ask another animated movie to contend with Pixar when the two are just a few months apart, but I will say that “Shaun of the Sheep” is well worth your time and features some of the best dialogue-free scenes in recent memory. In fact, the film has scarcely any dialogue at all. It relies on its visuals to entertain and does a a marvelous job at that. Some seriously Chaplin-esque stuff here, sure to please the kids, and some undeniably adult humor to be appreciated by grownups. The stop-motion animation is breathtakingly beautiful with layers of details in ever frame. I’d probably put this in an exclusive category of stop-motion classics such as “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Chicken Run,” “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and of course “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
I’ll get this out of the way early: I honestly think Tom Cruise is a great actor. He’s passionate about the quality of his work and really works to bring the best product to his legions of fans. “Rogue Nation” has ridiculously good action sequences and exhilarating stunts performed by Cruise. Every detail is put together in such a professional, meticulously stylish way. This is the type of movie you go into expecting over-the-top action sequences, especially after seeing the great ones delivered in “Ghost Protocol,” and the movie definitely delivers by exceeding those expectations. The movie does not have the strong thematic undertones and production design of “Fury Road,” and — again — the plot is definitely the weak link, but it does have some of the best action sequences of the year. I wish more summer blockbusters had this much effort and artistry on display. The multiplex would be a much better place.
“The Gift”
The biggest surprise of the summer is, sadly, a movie that many people have not heard much about. With 108 reviews on RottenTomatoes “The Gift” has an outstanding RT rating of 93%. Its metascore on Metacritic stands at 79. So what happened between the critics and audience awareness? As with most mini-budget movies, the marketing was micro — but despite that unavoidable reality, it ranked #3 at the box-office when it premiered and since earned an impressive $28 million on a budget investment of $5 million. Directed by “Zero Dark Thirty” actor Joel Edgerton, “The Gift” is a tense, creepy psychological thriller that has so many twists and turns in its screenplay that you never know what’s coming next. Edgerton directed, produced, wrote and starred in a movie so inspired that it’s reminiscent of Hitchcock and “The Turn of the Screw.” Starring Jason Bateman and the vastly undervalued Rebecca Hall, “The Gift” is a razor-sharp dissection of marriage and friendship that reminds us how we can never escape our past secrets. Go in knowing as little as possible and come out knowing more than you were prepared to find out.