Friday, September 30, 2016

'Voyage of Time: Life's Journey' review- TIFF 2016

To be clear, I'm not a Terrence Malick aficionado. In fact, I don't believe that I've ever seen a film from the acclaimed director (I'm young, cut me some slack). His films have always seemed distant to me, and I was always worried that I wouldn't "get" them. As I planned out my schedule for the Toronto International Film Festival, I figured what better place to start my Malick journey than in the Great White North with a documentary that he had spent years working to complete. Voyage of Time: Life's Journey is a project that I had heard about for years, and like any other Malick project, there was an air of mystery as to when it would show up on the festival circuit. After a burst of productivity recently that included the divisive Knight of Cups and To the Wonder, as well as the Academy Award-nominated Tree of Life, Malick announced his plans for Voyage of Time. The film would arrive in two different forms- a 40-minute IMAX documentary set to hit theaters on October 7 and an extended 90 minute cut that would play at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals in September before debuting in theaters at a later date.

On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Toronto, at a point where I was attempting to curb my festival fatigue, I sat down to watch Life's Journey, hoping to be taken on an awe-inspiring trip through the history of the universe. Instead, I was treated to "Laptop Screensaver: The Movie." Maybe I didn't "get" it like I was worried about, but I swear to you- I seriously don't believe that this movie has any real merit whatsoever. It is 90 minutes of pretty pictures with Cate Blanchett asking rhetorical questions to the universe. That's it. That's what this movie offers. I know that Voyage of Time is meant to be asking really big, vital questions about who we are, where we came from, and why we're here, but the questions are posed in a really heavy-handed manner and the answers are, frankly, not all that interesting. This is just a brutally boring movie to sit through, and unless what I just described sounds like a good time to you, Voyage of Time will test your patience until you've got nothing left to give.

So what is Voyage of Time about? It's about the universe, man. Dinosaurs and cavemen and the cosmos and stuff. It's the high art version of a stoner's dazed ramblings, filled with bright colors, shiny images, and absolutely nothing of substance. It's a feature-length showcase of Terrence Malick's esoteric quirks, a movie that will play very well with a specific audience willing to succumb to his pretensions. Basically, it's a feature-length blend of trippy images, modern handheld video footage, and overdone Cate Blanchett narration (she repeatedly refers to the universe as "Mother," if you want an idea of what this movie is like). Voyage of Time promises an experience for the mind, the body, and the soul. It delivers on none of that promise.

Maybe I'm being too dismissive of a movie from a true auteur. It's a distinct possibility. When I don't like something, I tend to turn against it really quickly. I gave up on Voyage of Time after a half hour of watching vaguely pretty images flash across the screen, and the movie never came close to sucking me back in. It's not that I didn't get Voyage of Time- I just think that the delivery is pretentious, the message is simplistic, and the end result is profoundly shallow. It's all of the wacky scenes in 2001 without the wonderment, the unsettling mood, or the iconic imagery. I guarantee that people will be hyping this up as some kind of grand achievement (the speaker who introduced the film was sure to emphasize that the film received a 10-minute ovation in Venice), but don't believe it- this is movie that has been done better many times before.

And that's all I have to say about Voyage of Time: Life's Journey. I know that I usually write much more than this, but there's seriously no reason to waste your time or my time. I hated this movie, I think it's an overlong, vapid slog, and I can't imagine anyone who's not a super hardcore Malick fan enjoying it. Apparently the IMAX Experience version (narrated by Brad Pitt) is a marked improvement, delivering the movie that everyone really wanted to see in the first place. So with that in mind, I can't write off Voyage of Time as a project just yet. But I do know this much- Life's Journey is a mess, a movie in search of a point and an effective way to tell its grand story.

THE FINAL GRADE:  D                                                 (4/10)

Image Credits: IMDB

Sunday, September 25, 2016

'The Magnificent Seven' review

If you look close enough, you might find that Antoine Fuqua's modern update on The Magnificent Seven is indicative of a greater trend in Hollywood of remakes of remakes (it's a remake of the 1960 film which itself is a remake of Seven Samurai). After all, that whole Ben-Hur thing did come out a month ago, and I'm sure that they've already got a few others in the pipeline. But to me, Fuqua's film is not part of a new trend or a revolutionary Tinseltown gimmick- it's actually an old-fashioned movie in every sense of the word. It's a classically told western, which we haven't seen much of recently, and most importantly, it's a star vehicle that was marketed entirely on the charms of Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt. In a studio system dominated by big franchises, it's always refreshing when a movie bucks that trend. Even though The Magnificent Seven is a remake with some name recognition, I guarantee you that most moviegoers didn't buy a ticket because of their fond memories of Seven Samurai or John Sturges' remake. They bought a ticket to see Denzel and Pratt being movie stars. That was the appeal.

The trailers for The Magnificent Seven made simple promises to audiences- Denzel's killing people, Pratt's cracking jokes, it's based on a famous story, and there'll be gunfights aplenty. And it delivers on every one of those guarantees. This is just a really fun movie, a breezily violent throwback to a bygone genre that works as an effective, straightforward time at the movies. Those looking for a fresh take on the story won't find much to love (although there are some racial undertones that are quite interesting), but as a modern western and a pulpy piece of entertainment, it hits the bullseye. On top of that, it's Fuqua's best film in a long time, far surpassing The Equalizer and Southpaw, and another great showcase for the spectacular talents of Washington, Pratt, Ethan Hawke, and more. For anybody looking to spend a couple of hours watching gun battles and witty banter between charismatic actors, you can't go wrong with The Magnificent Seven. It's far from nuanced, but you'll have a blast.

The story here is very familiar territory, and there aren't any big twists on Fuqua's part. As the movie opens, we're introduced to the town of Rose Creek, where the people are being held captive by an evil robber-baron named Bartholomew Bogue (played with delicious energy by Peter Sarsgaard). When all hell breaks loose one day, Bogue kills Matthew Cullen (Matt Bomer) and several other men and women in the town, giving them a cheap offer for their land and leaving without a trace. Left in Bogue's wake is Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), the wife of Matthew and a woman fiercely determined to ensure that justice occurs in her town. Along with a kind-hearted friend (Luke Grimes), Emma embarks on a journey to find men capable of protecting their town from the iron fist of Bogue and his army.

During her travels, Emma discovers Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a bounty hunter based out of Wichita, Kansas. He's a quick and effective killer, and he's pretty talented with a gun. When he hears that Bogue is terrorizing the town of Rose Creek, he agrees to help. He recruits the hard-drinking, charismatic Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt) to fight in return for a horse, and with that, they head off to find others willing to join their team. Along they way, they'll gain five more members- Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Jack Horne (Vincent D'Onofrio), and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier)- who all have special skills of their own. After reclaiming the town from a few of Bogue's men, the seven men will have a different problem on their hands- teaching a group of inexperienced townspeople how to fight for their freedom. With limited time, they'll have to use their smarts and their unique abilities to defeat one of the most fearsome armies in the west.

Antoine Fuqua has always been a spotty director in my view, and as much as I love Training Day, he has been on a recent skid with the aforementioned Equalizer and Southpaw. Those movies both fit right into Fuqua's wheelhouse, which is why I'm glad that he did something a bit different with his new film. Granted, Magnificent Seven is still a star-driven shoot-em-up (Fuqua's speciality), but by working in the confines of a genre that has been all but forgotten by Hollywood, Fuqua shakes up the mood a little bit and delivers something that feels fun and energetic. The action sequences are filmed with a goofy audacity, giving audiences everything that they could possibly want from a western with modern pyrotechnics. Fuqua doesn't resist the trappings of the genre, nor does he try to reinvent the wheel- instead, he embraces the dusty fun of a good ole' fashioned cowboy movie.

It also doesn't hurt when you have two of the most charismatic, famous movie stars on the planet. The Magnificent Seven would pretty much be nothing if it weren't for the presence of Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, two of the only actors left in Hollywood that can carry a movie on their own (even Pratt is still relatively untested). Washington is perfectly cast as Chisolm, the stoic warrior with a whole lot of internalized conflict. Washington is one of the best actors alive, and his ability to turn every action hero into a formidable badass never ceases to impress me. The script by Richard Went and Nicholas Pizzolatto never explores Chisolm's past as fully as they could, but they do touch on enough emotional and racial territory to make his character fascinating. And to be quite honest- what more can I say about Pratt? He's playing essentially the same character that he played in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World, a roguish, unusually charming drunk with a heart of gold. But even if he's in familiar territory, I guarantee you that nobody will be complaining.

Washington and Pratt carry the movie, but there are plenty of moments for the supporting cast to shine. I wish that they all had a bit more development and definition, and yet, they're fun enough to watch in their own way. Ethan Hawke's Goodnight Robicheaux is probably the only two-dimensional character out of the whole bunch, a former Confederate sharpshooter struggling over his own sense of fear and guilt. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo is great as the smooth-talking Vasquez, while Vincent D'Onofrio looks like he's having fun hamming it up as the bearlike Horne. Byung-hun Lee and Martin Sensmeier's characters are defined mostly by their superior war skills, but they certainly have some impressive moments. Haley Bennett is poised to have quite the breakout year with her roles in this, The Girl on the Train, and Rules Don't Apply, and I really enjoyed her work as Emma Cullen. And finally, Peter Sarsgaard is clearly having a blast as the gleefully evil Bogue. He's a despicable character and he embraces it. They're a fun crew of characters, and even if they're not all that compelling, you'll have fun in their company.

There are plenty of things in The Magnificent Seven that I wish Fuqua and the screenwriters had done better. The racial undertones are pronounced at various times throughout the story, such as a notable scene during Chisolm's introduction where he rides into town on a horse as citizens look on in anger (it's reminiscent of Django Unchained). And yet, Fuqua never explores this to the fullest, opting for an occasional reference in between the gun battles. This also comes up in Faraday's relationship with Vasquez, but all of it remains rather subtle, which is both a positive and a negative. The characters aren't all that complex either and even though they're always charismatic, they can be a bit one-note. Oh, and there's a tacked-on ending that will make even the most forgiving of audiences howl with laughter. But all of these flaws are pushed away because of one simple fact- this movie is fun. It's brash and loud and gleefully violent, the kind of old-school movie that I wish the studios made more often. The issues are obvious, but you probably won't mind.

The 2016 version of The Magnificent Seven will likely always be known as an inferior remake to two classic films, but as a piece of entertainment, this bullet-filled update has its merits. If the film manages to be a box office hit (it did good business this weekend), we could see a resurgence in the western genre which would make me very, very happy. Neo-westerns have been flourishing for years with great films like Hell or High Water, No Country for Old Men, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight drawing praise from critics and audiences alike. But we have yet to see the western return as a mega-blockbuster, a genre that can get people to theaters in droves. The Magnificent Seven is the first modern example of a superhero western, a ludicrous spectacle of epic proportions led by two great movie stars. It might not start a trend, but it's worth a shot, right?

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.4/10)

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures

'Moonlight' review- TIFF 2016

It feels like nobody knew about Moonlight until a month ago. There had been whispers among some critics who got the chance to see it early, but the indie film was a relatively unknown quantity until A24 released the first trailer. Hypnotic, mysterious, and stunningly gorgeous, the preview for Barry Jenkins' second feature (and the first film developed in-house at A24) unleashed a wave of anticipation that hasn't stopped ever since. I had never heard of Jenkins before, nor had I seen his first film, Medicine for Melancholy (something that I definitely feel that I should rectify). But after watching that trailer, Moonlight instantly became one of the films that I simply couldn't miss at the Toronto International Film Festival. The buzz at the Telluride Film Festival (where Jenkins had been a volunteer for years) was deafening, and as Saturday night approached at TIFF, there was a feeling in the air that is almost indescribable. As the Winter Garden Theatre filled up with movie fans, stars, and industry insiders on a rainy night in Toronto, the room was electric. We knew that we were about to witness something special.

I throw around the word "masterpiece" quite often on this site, probably more than I should. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it's a bad habit of mine. Sometimes, if there's a film that I really love and enjoy, I'll call it a masterpiece just as a show of my support. Unfortunately, I believe there are times where I can get a bit overeager, deeming a movie to be a masterpiece without really considering all that means. In reality, that word has meaning. A masterpiece is what happens when all of the elements of film combine in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. It is not a common occurrence and something that I've realized that I need to take more seriously. Going into TIFF, I knew that I would see a lot of great films, but would I see any films that truly deserve such a meaningful title? If there was one, I figured it would be Moonlight. The film has been called a masterpiece by plenty of critics who have gotten the chance to see it, and thanks to its sterling reviews, this almost seems to be the general consensus.

And with good reason. This is an incredible piece of filmmaking. You will not be able to stop thinking about this movie- it has haunted my memory ever since I saw it. It is astonishing, it is heartbreaking, and yes, it is a full-blown masterpiece. But maybe most importantly, Moonlight is pure cinema. It is poetic and remarkably graceful, breathtakingly emotional without ever feeling manipulative. The storytelling is elegant and patient, but even more than that, the filmmaking on display is momentous. The performances are out-of-this-world, the cinematography is thrilling, the use of music is brilliant. Moonlight is a true piece of art, the rare perfect work that combines everything you want from a motion picture into one dazzling concoction. It's a vital, sensational, unforgettable movie, a film so essential and so terrific that it's difficult to put its genius into words. It's one of the best films I've seen in a very, very long time.

Based on the play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" by Tarell McCraney, Moonlight is the story of three decades in the life of Chiron. The story begins when Chiron is just a young boy (played by Alex R. Hibbert) growing up in a dangerous neighborhood in Miami. He's known mostly as "Little" and during his early days, he's befriended by a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) who sees him as a lost soul in need of some help. Little's father is no longer around, and his mother (Naomie Harris) is a drug addict, so Juan and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), take him under their wing. Time passes, and the young boy becomes a teenager who goes by his birth name of Chiron. As a teen, he's dealing with his newfound sexuality and the dangers of being a gay man in high school. And finally, the third chapter finds Chiron as an older man, known simply as Black (Trevante Rhodes). After a life-changing event, Chiron must come to terms with the course of his life and reunite with his past.

That's a pretty general synopsis of this movie, and to be quite honest, I wish I could be even more vague about the story Moonlight tells over the course of its 110 minute runtime. The less you know, the better. This is an entirely singular film experience, and I love the idea of somebody seeing it, having no idea what to expect, and being utterly blown away. You're going to hear plenty of people comparing Moonlight to other films (Richard Linklater's Boyhood chief among them), but I think that diminishes the unique power of Jenkins' triumph. Moonlight is a monumental achievement, a gorgeous, dreamlike portrait of the life of a beautiful, troubled soul. From the opening frame to the mesmerizing final shot, Moonlight is completely spellbinding. I cannot say enough good things about this movie.

It took Barry Jenkins eight years to make his sophomore feature after his acclaimed debut, but after seeing it, all I have to say is that I really, really hope that it won't take another eight for his third. With Moonlight, Jenkins proves himself to be a filmmaker of immense talent, a director with an uncommonly good visual eye and a knack for gentle, rhythmic storytelling. The film opens with Mahershala Ali's Juan parking his car on the side of the road (accompanied by a great musical cue), and when he gets out to meet a friend, the camera circles around the conversation for one single shot. It's such a dizzying, brilliant way to draw the audience into the movie, and Jenkins doesn't stop there. His work with the camera is impressive, but never gimmicky, fitting the mood of each shot with poise. Every frame feels absolutely essential, and it's amazing how well Jenkins nails the tone and feeling of each scene. He's a major talent, and if he doesn't get a Best Director nomination this year, there's no justice in the world.

Oh, and did I mention how beautiful this movie is? James Laxton worked as the cinematographer on Tusk, Yoga Hosers, and Camp X-Ray- nothing that would indicate that he could deliver something as jaw-dropping as this. Moonlight is soaked in stunning colors and alluring visual contrasts, giving it the feeling of an exquisite painting. The entire film has a blue hue (which makes sense given the thematic connection), and the disparity between the grainy, brutal reality of Chiron's world and the calm, smooth world of Miami is amazing. It would be one thing if Moonlight was just a great film to look at, but it also has one of the most haunting scores in recent memory. If you've seen the trailer, you've heard it already. The aching pain of Nicholas Britell's score permeates every scene of Moonlight- through those mournful violin chords, you can hear the tragedy, feel the loss of love. Jenkins never abuses the brilliance of Britell's score, nor does he emphasize it during the most intense moments. Instead, it underscores the entire work, only adding to the artistry of the film.

The cast of Moonlight is equally outstanding, and they deliver such raw, nuanced, emotionally resonant performances that I have to imagine awards recognition is in their future. Chiron's evolution is the main arc, and we're treated to three stellar performances that capture his personality and soul at different times in his life. Alex Hibbert plays the young Little, and he's dynamic and captivating, often without ever saying a word. As the quiet, often terrified Little, Hibbert is able to convey so much pain and confusion with just a look. There's an unusual amount of reflection and contemplation in Hibbert's performance, and it's without a doubt one of the most stellar child actor turns in recent memory. Once Hibbert exits the story, Ashton Sanders takes his place as the older Chiron, amplifying his quiet reserve in a new way. Sanders captures Chiron at a point in his life where so much tragedy has already occurred, and there are no easy answers to the big questions that haunt his life. Like Hibbert's Little, you can feel the sadness and anger and turmoil in Sanders' performance, and I was simply blown away.

As Moonlight's third act arrives, Trevante Rhodes takes over the role of Chiron. And even after two incredibly impressive performances from two unusually terrific young actors, Rhodes steals the show. He's the breakout star of the movie, and if he isn't immediately scooped up by studios all over Hollywood, I'll be shocked. Rhodes represents Chiron at a point where he has internalized all of his conflict. He no longer wears his pain on his face- it's buried deep inside, underneath an iron clad exterior. So when Rhodes eventually breaks down, it's all the more wrenching to watch. It's sad to see Chiron transform into something that he knows he isn't, but Rhodes uses that to his advantage as the emotional moments arrive. The final third of Moonlight is probably the most impressive display of cinema I've seen this year so far, and Rhodes takes everything that McCraney and Jenkins give him and creates something sensational.

Moonlight is Chiron's story, but it's also the story of the people who shaped who he becomes as a man. There are so many excellent supporting roles in this film, and each member of the cast knocks it out of the park. Mahershala Ali could gain some serious traction for his role as Juan, the drug dealer who becomes a father figure for Chiron. Ali is soft-spoken and kind, a man devoted to the life of this young boy even though his profession is less than noble. His girlfriend is played by Janelle Monae, the pop star who is poised to have a breakout year with her role here and in Theo Melfi's Hidden Figures. Monae is the mother that Chiron really needs, and her tender, no-nonsense love is beautiful to watch. Naomie Harris is most likely to gain significant Oscar attention for her turn as Paula, Chiron's drug-addled mother. Harris is able to capture the tragedy of a woman trapped by her addiction, and although she's never a major part of the film, she's enthralling to watch. And finally, I was incredibly impressed by Andre Holland, who plays a character dealing with his impact on Chiron later in life. Holland's charisma and warmth shines through, and I would love to see him get more roles along with his co-stars.

The cast and crew behind Moonlight are invaluable to the success of the film. But the magic lies with the script, written by Jenkins and based off McCraney's play (who I imagine had quite a bit to do with the adaptation). This is simply a miraculous story, structured, written, and told with extraordinary skill. Jenkins' decision to tell the story in three definitive acts was an act of genius, and the way that the movie builds to an emotional payoff is devastating. Even Boyhood can't compare to Jenkins' treatment of the trials and tribulations of life, handled so delicately as the film explores the legacy of pain that can start in our youth. The tagline for Moonlight says "This is the story of a lifetime." It lives up to the title. It's the story of a young man coming to terms with who he is, who he loves, and the people and community who created him. And if it doesn't take your breath away, nothing will.

Movies don't get much better than Moonlight, an ephemeral, beautiful portrait of a life marked by love, loss, and tragedy. Any fan of film needs to see this movie, and I can't imagine anyone walking away disappointed. We don't see nearly enough films about the African-American experience, so it's a blessing that we have artists like Jenkins and McCraney to tell the stories that have been pushed to the side for too long. With Moonlight, Jenkins has crafted a universally appealing masterwork, a film that will be remembered for years to come. What else can I say? Just see it.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A+                                             (10/10)

Images courtesy of A24

Saturday, September 24, 2016

'American Pastoral' review- TIFF 2016

When a famous actor decides to try their hand at directing, it's always a risky proposition. Sometimes it turns out great, but it can often be a total disaster. For every Ben Affleck and Clint Eastwood, there's an actor who outright bombs with his debut film. Going into the Toronto International Film Festival, one of the big questions on everyone's mind was how Ewan McGregor would fare with his first directorial feature, American Pastoral. The dynamic star of films like Star Wars, Trainspotting, and Moulin Rouge! had decided to tackle a sprawling, ambitious adaptation of one of the most famous modern American novels from Philip Roth, a book that had been previously been deemed as impossible to put on film. That was an immediate red flag for many audience members and critics, but after months of good buzz, a great trailer, the success of another Roth adaptation, and a prime Friday night slot at the Toronto International Film Festival, anticipation began to grow for McGregor's debut film.

Much to the surprise of myself and a good number of people at the festival, American Pastoral fell completely flat. In fact, I would argue that it was one of the biggest bombs of the fest. It's currently sitting at a ghastly 20% on Rotten Tomatoes, and most critics rejected the film without hesitation, dismissing it as a misguided, Oscar bait-y adaptation of an incredible book. And after seeing the film, it's not hard to see why very few people were taken by it- American Pastoral is just not a good movie, and I don't know if it ever was going to be. It's too big, too unruly, too unfocused. McGregor has some directorial chops, which makes it all the more unfortunate that his debut comes across as a cross between a poorly staged play and a sprawling epic that got out of control. He nails the look and feel of 1950/60's America, but that can only get you so far when you're dealing with a narrative that just isn't all that interesting. American Pastoral isn't a disaster, but it is a film that misses the mark by a mile.

Spanning several decades in American history, Pastoral tells the story of Seymour "Swede" Levov (McGregor), a beloved star athlete in his New Jersey hometown and a family man. He marries a beautiful pageant queen, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), and has a young daughter, Merry. Basically, Swede is living the American dream. There are a few hiccups along the way as young Merry (Hannah Nordberg) struggles with a speech impediment, but for the most part, the 1950s are a time of idyllic prosperity for the Levov family. Then come the 1960s. Merry (played at an older age by Dakota Fanning) joins several anarchic and left-wing protest groups, and suddenly, Swede finds his peaceful, ordinary life falling apart at the seams. After possibly committing a heinous crime and mysteriously disappearing, Merry becomes the central focus of Swede's life as he searches to find his daughter and save their crumbling family.

I'm stuck in a weird place with American Pastoral. Because while I admire its ambition and scope, its execution is spotty. Some scenes manage to work, but they're few and far between compared to the multitude of sequences that feel aimless, stilted, and messy. McGregor captures the look and feel of the Fifties and Sixties beautifully, contrasting exquisitely plain detail with a grimy, downtrodden look. But ultimately, these are all surface-level pleasures, hiding the basic fact that there's just not much going on in this movie. Is this focus on exteriors a comment on the shallow superficiality of America? I don't think so. Whatever McGregor is trying to say gets drowned out by the emptiness of the characters, the lack of subtlety and depth, and the baffling nature of some of the directorial choices.

Let's talk about the characters for a second. They're central to the failure of American Pastoral, and the fact that they're all ciphers is a huge problem. Swede Levov is played decently by McGregor (it's not his finest hour, yet he's okay), but there's absolutely nothing to the character of Swede. He's portrayed as a vanilla all-American man mourning the destruction of his suburban life. But why? Who is he really? Is he nothing but what's on the surface? All we get in terms of Swede's background is some voiceover from David Strathairn and a few blurbs of exposition. The movie never digs deep into his emotions or feelings, and McGregor isn't able to bring anything fascinating to the character. This is an even bigger problem for Jennifer Connelly's Dawn, who is perhaps the most underdeveloped character in the entire movie. Dawn is a beauty queen who gets plastic surgery at some point during the story. That's it. I know that's a commentary on the superficial nature of the 1950s, but Dawn feels like such a side note throughout the entire movie. "Swede's upset! Merry's a murderer! Oh, and Dawn's here too. She might be going crazy," feels like a good way to sum up Pastoral.

Merry is the final part of our main trio of leads, and she might just be the most baffling character of the bunch. I'm sure that she's well fleshed-out in the book, but here, she's such a strangely crafted character that I could never get a read on what McGregor was trying to say. Early in the movie, it's implied that Merry has some kind of sexual complex for her father and uses her speech impediment to gain his attention. When the action shifts to the 60s, she's suddenly condemning Lyndon B. Johnson as a fascist and joining anarchist groups......because that's what kids did in the 1960s? Sure, there were plenty of young people fighting for a revolution in the decade, but usually there was some kind of a reason for it. American Pastoral portrays the reason as simply "Merry was a bad egg from the start" and never goes deeper than that. The psychological subplot is dumped early, and by the time that Merry's a full-blown terrorist, it's a total mystery as to why she suddenly became a revolutionary.

The main characters feel undercooked and one-dimensional, so it's no surprise that the supporting crew lacks even a semblance of definition. Uzo Aduba is totally wasted as Vicky, a character that feels entirely superfluous to the narrative. Valorie Curry has drawn praise for her performance here, but her character disappears during the movie, illustrating a strange plot point and then vanishing. And finally, even though David Strathairn's Nathan Zuckerman is the emotional crux of the movie, it's never clear who his character is or why he cares about the story of the Swede. For me, all of this blame goes to John Romano's script, which is often brutally bad. Not only does the script never manage to make the characters or plot fascinating, it also delivers some cringe-worthy dialogue. Every line feels like it's being delivered by an actor, not by a real person. That creates some scenes that are really difficult to watch for all the wrong reasons. The delivery of every line feels calculated and forced, like a stage play gone haywire. It can be really tough to watch at times.

American Pastoral may look very pretty, but it's as shallow as the characters that inhabit it. Ewan McGregor shows quite a bit of promise from a visual composition standpoint- there are some really gorgeous shots in this film- and yet, he's truly hindered by a disastrous script that never does any good for his vision or the performances. I'd like to see McGregor try again with a tighter script, something that feels smaller with a much more limited scope. His ambition is admirable, which makes it all the more unfortunate that American Pastoral got away from him. Cinephiles entered TIFF with high expectations for a stunning debut, but in the blink of an eye, this disappointing adaptation evaporated into thin air.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C-                                             (5.1/10)

Images courtesy of Lionsgate Pictures

Monday, September 19, 2016

'The Birth of a Nation' review- TIFF 2016

So where do I start?

For anybody writing about Nate Parker's The Birth of Nation, in theaters nationwide on October 7, this is the question that comes to mind. This was always going to be a controversial film destined to spark debate, but the story has taken a dark, disturbing turn in recent weeks that has complicated things even further. The 1999 rape case, where Parker and Jean Celestin (his co-writer) were accused of sexually assaulting a woman during their time at Penn State, has come to dominate the conversation surrounding the film, overshadowing all of the Oscar buzz and topical themes that sparked excitement at Sundance. The case was always known by some insiders, but when Fox Searchlight tried to get the jump on the media speculation by having Parker conduct interviews with major trades such as Variety and Deadline, things took a rough turn. Parker appeared cold and inconsiderate during the interviews, emphasizing the emotional impact that the case had on him and how he had changed since that dark time.

The interviews were tough to stomach- no apology, no sense of remorse, nothing more than an acknowledgement that he had made mistakes. Then came the bombshell that Parker's accuser had committed suicide, seemingly as a result of the case that had haunted her for years. The news was shocking and gut-wrenching, and then the questions started to come in. Could we even watch The Birth of a Nation at this point? Would Fox Searchlight bother with a comprehensive Oscar campaign? Does Parker deserve our money and our respect? Can we truly separate the art and the artist? These questions are not easy to answer. And I'm not going to try to do that here. If you don't feel comfortable watching Birth, I can't blame you for that. It's tough to argue for watching a film from an individual who not only was accused of a heinous crime, but also seems to not recognize any of the harm that he caused.

But truth be told, I've never been one to boycott or avoid a film based on the actions of the people behind it. I still see Woody Allen's new movie every year, I'm certainly going to be checking out Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge, and I would be there for a new Roman Polanski movie. I've made a decision to separate the art from the artist, but if people don't feel comfortable with that, I understand. With all of this in mind, I sat down at the Elgin Theatre at TIFF to watch one of the most talked-about movies of the year. Would Parker be booed? How would the crowd react? Was the film over-hyped at Sundance? Did critics hold back on what they really thought? All of these questions swirled through my head as I attended one of the most buzzed-about events of the festival.

And ultimately, it was kind of a disappointment across the board. Parker was received warmly, the screening occurred without protests or problems (the real controversy occurred at the press conference the next day), and the film is just fairly mediocre at the end of the day. It's far from a trainwreck, but it surely isn't anywhere close to being a good film. Parker's debut is bruising and effective in a way, and there are plenty of moments that emerge as memorable (one scene involving force feeding is especially harrowing). Unfortunately, Parker has the distinct misfortune of following in the footsteps of filmmakers like Steve McQueen and Quentin Tarantino, who tackled the slavery issue in very different fashions with 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained, respectively. Parker tries to combine the two radically different tones in a meaningful way, but the result is a brutal slog, one that delivers all of the build-up and none of the payoff. He's got talent, but The Birth of a Nation is riddled with problems.

Reclaiming the name of D.W. Griffith's 1915 film about the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation tells the story of Nat Turner (Parker), who was behind one of the most famous slave rebellions in American history. From birth, Nat is told that he's a special young man. He's represented in the film as a sort of "chosen one" figure, the man destined to lead a rebellion. He's taught to read by his master at a young age, and as he gets older, he becomes a preacher for his master and former friend (Armie Hammer). But as he travels through the plantations of the south and witnesses the horror of slavery in various ways, Nat changes from a preacher to a revolutionary. He assembles an army and prepares to overthrow the system, intent on killing every person who stands in his way. And by orchestrating one of the most powerful rebellions in history, Turner etches his name into the history books.

Parker has a spectacular visual eye, but he is less adept at dealing with complex characters, tone, and pacing. You know, things that are kinda important. He's able to create a provocative, haunting, and sickening image, but he can't connect those various images into a cohesive whole. It's a problem that hangs over the entire film, and I think that audiences are going to have a really tough time engaging in Birth of a Nation on an emotional level, despite the passion involved with the subject matter. The only character that even comes close to registering on the emotional scale is Turner. Everybody else is just sorta there, and his relationship with the supporting crew is very loosely defined. There are plenty of secondary characters in The Birth of a Nation, but their individual stories and motivations are drowned out in the grand scheme of the story. Turner's love for his wife even struggles under the ambition of the movie, although there is one gruelingly terrific scene with her towards the end.

I think that there will be plenty of interesting discussions surrounding the use of violence in Birth of a Nation, and I don't know if there's a right or wrong way to feel about it. But ultimately, the simple fact of the matter is this- the scenes that detail the horrors of slavery have been done better in other films, and the scenes involving violent revenge and uprising have been done better in other films. That's a fact that I think is irrefutable. Parker is great at staging disturbing, gut-wrenching scenes depicting man's inhumanity to man, but he misses so much of the emotion. There's not a scene in Birth of a Nation that made me want to cry or weep- instead, they just make you want to throw up after a while. Now, nausea is an equally valid response to such chilling images, but I do feel like there's an emotional distance to this work on the whole that is disappointing. It's angry and passionate and infuriated, yet those emotions never translate to the audience.

This is an issue that stretches to the rebellion, which may be the most problematic aspect of the entire film. For one, what you've already heard is 100% right- the rebellion happens way too late in the game. The revolution occurs with around 20 minutes left in the film, and that doesn't give it nearly enough time to work in an effective manner. The first chunk of Birth of a Nation is stodgy and devoid of subtlety, but Parker keeps the audience engaged by the promise of a fulfilling and exciting rebellion. And that it just sorta happens? Yeah, you're not gonna get much satisfaction at all by the end of Birth of a Nation. Parker puts himself into a corner by starting the rebellion so late that by the time things actually get moving, the film has to wrap up at the same time. In the days since I saw this, I've been piecing together ways that I think Birth of a Nation could be improved, and I remain frustrated that Parker didn't make some of these realizations earlier.

If Birth of a Nation did away with 30 minutes of the setup, focused on the most potent story beats, and shifted the attention to the camaraderie between Turner and his fellow rebels earlier in the story, then we might have an entirely different story here. But in its current state, that is far, far from the case. Essentially, we get 90 minutes of okay setup before 30 minutes of a rebellion that feels dull and rushed. That's not exactly an appealing combination, even if there are some terrific moments spread throughout the film. Surprisingly, Parker's performance as Turner emerges as one of the better aspects of the first part of the movie. He has an instant likability and even though I'm fairly certain he'll never work again after this whole fiasco, he definitely has a movie star presence.

The Birth of a Nation can best be described as admirably flawed. Parker shoots for the skies with his debut feature, and he partially succeeds. He's an exceptional visual stylist, but frankly, I don't think he's much of a storyteller. He has so many interesting themes to deal with- the nature of violence, the power of uprising, the moral line between murderer and revolutionary- and he just chooses to ignore them. Even though it features its fair share of memorable moments, The Birth of a Nation is immensely frustrating and disappointing. People are going to want to see it to be a part of the conversation, but I think that most audience members will find a film with many elements that have been done better elsewhere.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.9/10)

Images courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

'Elle' review- TIFF 2016

The Cannes Film Festival is notorious for its adventurous cinematic lineup, and over the years, they've screened a wide range of controversial films. With dark visions from directors like Gaspar Noe and Lars von Trier bringing all kinds of disturbing realism to the Croisette, the festival is no stranger to screening movies that will have people talking. This year, the most talked-about movie was Paul Verhoeven's Elle, and it's a film that raises eyebrows just based on the concept alone. Essentially, Elle is a pitch-black comedy/thriller about a woman, played by the iconic French actress Isabelle Huppert, who is the victim of a brutal sexual assault. It handles the material in a completely unexpected way, and for a lot of people, the idea of a movie about rape with so many humorous elements will be cringe-worthy. It's tough to figure out how to respond to a movie that pushes so many provocative and topical buttons, and I think that audiences will avoid Verhoeven's film in droves.

At its essence, Elle is an endlessly fascinating portrait of an incredibly disturbed individual. It's one of the more compelling character studies of the year, and the fact that no clear answers are given makes the film equal parts enticing and frustrating. The rape scenes are unflinching, graphic, and horrific, and yet at the same time, there's no question that there are a lot of laughs in this film. It's a strange concoction that blends extreme Hitchcockian thriller elements with the style of a dysfunctional family drama, and while it doesn't always work, Elle is never less than fully engaging. I'm still sorting out my feelings on this one even a week after seeing it, but there's something about it that is just unshakable. With a stunning performance from Huppert and the brilliant direction of Verhoeven, Elle is a grisly and thoroughly outrageous thriller. You may hate it, but you can't call it boring.

In the opening scene of Elle, Michele Leblanc (Huppert) is raped in her home by an unknown man. After the assault occurs, she doesn't call the police or contact anybody. She just sorta goes on with her business. We quickly learn that Michele isn't exactly like any female protagonist we've ever seen. She's a complex creature with a multi-layered history, devoted to taking her revenge on her rapist while also being fiercely committed to her own brand of justice. To describe all of Michele's complicated relationships would be an exercise in total futility, but it's safe to say that she has her fair share of drama in her life. She's the daughter of a notorious murderer, has a strangely normal relationship with her ex-husband, and is incredibly dismissive of her own son. Elle is a female empowerment story, but at the same time, it's a rich, funny, and absurd tale of a crazy group of people.

Elle is being defined by the rape scenes in the story, and even though I know that many critics will try to convince audiences that the movie "isn't about the rape," it's not difficult to understand why these scenes are the focal point of the conversation surrounding this film. They're brutal and horrific, and they occur frequently throughout. If there was only one scene involving a sexual assault, I think people might be able to delve deeper into the other things in the story. But rape is such a pervasive part of this story, and I almost feel like the disturbing nature of the film hinders some of the incredibly interesting character work. Verhoeven has crafted one of the most indelible characters of the year with Michele, but the movie is so sickening and tough to stomach that I don't know if audiences will respond to what works in the film.

In fact, I think it's quite telling that I'm several days removed from seeing this film and yet I'm still trying to decide how I felt. This is a tricky movie and one that isn't content on telling audiences how to feel. Is Elle a movie that handles its topic insensitively? That's up for you to decide. Verhoeven presents you with a complicated character in an unsettling situation, and doesn't ask you to judge or understand, but to simply observe. Michele Leblanc isn't sympathetic and neither is the movie as a whole. Elle could be easily dismissed as exploitative or crass, a film that's out to provoke audience members and nothing more. In a filmmaking culture where many things are played safe, Verhoeven takes an incredible risk with an unapologetic film that takes no prisoners and gives no answers. It's horrifying, it knows it, and it knows that audiences won't know how to respond. That's a special kind of gutsy.

Ultimately, if you're able to overlook just how nasty and graphic Elle is (which I eventually was able to do), you'll find that Verhoeven has created a crafty, often brilliant film. In the post-screening Q&A, he listed several of his directorial influences for Elle, and the one that stuck out to me the most was Alfred Hitchcock. The shadow of Hitchcock hangs over this movie, and every scene has the exquisite tension and lurid sexuality of a piece of work from the Master of Suspense. Call it Hitchcock Gone Wild, if you will. Elle is what would happen if Hitchcock was allowed to explore the deepest, darkest corners of his twisted mind on screen, and it proves to be quite compelling at times. Verhoeven directs the movie like a conductor, closely manipulating the audience with each gruesome twist and turn. My experience with Verhoeven primarily involves his schlockier efforts (Starship Troopers, Total Recall), so to see him directing a movie so masterfully was quite the revelation.

Huppert is also sensational in the lead role, fully deserving of every ounce of praise that she'll receive over the next few months. With the help of Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke, Huppert has managed to create a character that is fiercely cunning, profoundly intelligent, and endlessly unlikable. I guarantee you that you will never like Michele LeBlanc at any point during this movie. You may feel for her, but she makes so many baffling, despicable choices that will make it hard for any audience member to empathize with her. But here's the important thing- you can never, ever take her eyes off her. Huppert's Michele belongs in the annals of great movie sociopaths, alongside such characters as Jake Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom and Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman. She's that good.

Elle is a tough watch, but if you're okay with taking an interesting, often vicious journey, you'll be rewarded with a film that is as unforgettable as it is disturbing. Just when you think it can't get any more intense, Verhoeven cranks it up a notch, leaving you a film that will physically and mentally exhaust you. Huppert and the famed Dutch filmmaker are at the top of their game here, working with harsh material in a revolutionary new way. Darkly funny, shockingly lurid, and perpetually watchable, Elle is a startling crime drama and a character study that is sure to divide audiences right down the middle (for the record, my dad hated it). But for adventurous fans, Verhoeven's shocking thriller will be one of the most alluring films of the year.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.8/10)

Image Credits: Joblo, Variety, IMDB

Saturday, September 17, 2016

'Free Fire' review- TIFF 2016

Movie trailers are an essential part of the filmgoing experience these days, and it has gotten to the point where I think that people look forward to trailers almost as much as the films themselves. Over the last few months, the Twitter account TrailerTrack has become one of the best sources of info for when the most anticipated trailers will hit the web. The account has gained popularity for accurately reporting info on the trailers for Dunkirk, Arrival, Passengers and more, and they've been incredibly reliable from the start. I first heard of Ben Wheatley's Free Fire when TrailerTrack reported that the first trailer would screen with Swiss Army Man, and ever since that point, the film has been one of my most anticipated upcoming releases. I saw the electrifying, funny trailer with the aforementioned Daniel Radcliffe vehicle, and my anticipation only grew. However, the Free Fire trailer took on a sort of mystical status in the TrailerTrack world, as A24 never released it online despite having it play in theaters for months. I rapidly searched for more information on the film, yet it was nowhere to be found. But when I heard that Wheatley and the studio would be taking the dark comedy to the Midnight Madness section at the Toronto International Film Festival, it immediately became the movie that I absolutely had to see during my time in the Great White North.

With a talented cast, a high-concept story, and a period energy that appeared to be a cross between Tarantino and Scorsese, there were plenty of reasons to be excited for Free Fire. But Ben Wheatley had been hit-or-miss with critics in the past, and as excited as I was, I did feel like there was a chance that this film could fall flat out of the gate. Thankfully, that is very, very far from the case. Free Fire is a profoundly anarchic action movie blast, a darkly comic hellstorm of bullets and one-liners that stands as the most fun I had at TIFF. Wheatley has diluted the action movie to its essence and delivered a 90-minute orgy of insnae violence and gleeful humor. Confined to one complex location, Free Fire's roller-coaster ride of continuous mayhem is a dazzling feat of genre filmmaking that doubles as a deranged shootout for the ages.

Set in Boston in 1978, Free Fire centers around an arms deal between a group of IRA members and a highly influential crime syndicate. The group of Irish nationalists- led by Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley)- are in the market to purchase several M16's from Vernon (Sharlto Copley), a powerful gangster. With the help of two powerful players on the Boston crime scene, Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer), the deal is set up and the two groups agree to meet in a warehouse at night to hammer out a deal. The IRA bring along their local lackeys (Sam Riley and Enzo Cilenti) to help with the merchandise, and the Boston syndicate bring their lower-level assistants (Noah Taylor and Jack Reynor) as well, which quickly becomes a major problem for reasons I won't spoil here. With everybody holed up in one location, armed to the deal with a wide range of weapons, it's safe to say that things go south rather quickly. But as bullets fly and the bodies pile up, the gangs realize that something even more sinister may be going on.

If there's one complaint to be waged against Free Fire, it's that there isn't a whole hell of a lot to the story. The movie doesn't have much in the way of complicated plot dynamics or character development, and even a few of the twists that do pop up feel muddled. But at the same time, the simplicity is pretty much what makes this movie work. Ben Wheatley essentially puts a group of idiots in a room and watches them kill each other. Even the smart characters in Free Fire have the IQ of a 10-year old, and it makes the movie a refreshing change of pace from its predecessors. In most films like this, all of the characters are smart and cunning, constantly trying to think their way out of a situation by duping the other people in a room. In Free Fire, pretty much every character is thinking out loud, spouting off all kinds of idiotic lunacy as they settle their problems the only way they know how- with a barrage of bullets.

Having one of the most talented casts in recent memory certainly helps things, and it's a pure delight to watch them go to work. It's an impressive mix of character actors and major superstars, and they all get a chance to shine in this film. There's no real lead, but if there's one consensus pick for the standout performance, it's probably Armie Hammer. He's been typecast as an old-fashioned Hollywood star for years, and it's great to see him flip things around and play a different kind of character. This is the funniest Hammer has ever been, and his narcissistic, charming, pot-smoking criminal associate is one of the highlights of the film. Sharlto Copley shines as well as the cowardly Vern, a fashion-obsessed numbskull of a gangster who gets himself into some hairy situations. Copley has always played his characters at a manic pitch, which has sometimes felt like a miscalculation. Here, it's perfect for the tone that Wheatley has created, and he has some absolutely brilliant moments.

Sam Riley and Jack Reynor are also terrific as fierce adversaries, continuing to prove that they both have plenty to offer in these kinds of supporting roles. Riley's Stevo is both despicable and lovable, which is no small feat. And Reynor, after the surprise success of his turn in Sing Street earlier in the year, continues to prove that he has endless charisma. Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley try to play the "straight men" in the cast, but even they get to have some fun firing off one-liners as the bullets whiz around the room. Surprisingly, Brie Larson's role is fairly small, although I have a feeling this movie was made well before the release of Room. She's great at playing a badass, no-nonsense anti-heroine, and Justine emerges as one of the most fascinating players in the movie. Babou Ceesay, Noah Taylor, and Enzo Cilenti also have excellent moments in supporting roles.

As great as this cast is, Free Fire would be impossible without the directorial innovation of Wheatley and the screenwriting wisdom of his co-writer and partner, Amy Jump. In fact, I firmly believe that the non-stop sensual assault of the shootout would be a bit harder to swallow if not for the humor that is injected into every moment of this film (in the post-screening Q&A, Wheatley credited Jump for all the humor and fun stuff). The script is compact and concise, firmly establishing the nature of each of the characters without dwelling on it. Ord is a smooth-talking swindler, Stevo is an addicted coward, Chris always plays it straight, and so on. We get all of this information just as the film begins, and as the firestorm of violence erupts, these simple personality details are important. I would compare the script to Reservoir Dogs or another similar Tarantino screenplay, but the truth is, it's a lot more open with its humor than those films. It's a different beast altogether.

Wheatley makes full use of the 1970s setting, delivering a product that is fully devoted to its sense of grimy, dirty grittiness. Nobody stays clean during this film, and every star is covered in a unique mix of dirt and gore by the end of it. Wheatley drags the camera through the mud as well, bouncing back and forth during the fight scenes with an invigorating sense of cinematic energy that will send shockwaves through your system. He complements this with occasional moments of absurdist flair, such as a jarring tracking shot of a canister being fired through the air at full-speed. The film has moments like this sprinkled throughout, and it keeps you on your toes for the whole runtime.

With Free Fire, Wheatley has delivered a manic burst of action cinema that serves as a joyous shot of delicious adrenaline. It's a jaw-dropping feat of brutal comedic lunacy, and it's definitely headed for cult status, which some seem to view as a bad thing (I certainly don't). If you read the tagline "feature length shootout with bursts of comedy" and were intrigued by that concept, you're almost certain to adore this movie. I was in sheer awe of its bullet-riddled audacity, and it's a movie that I know I'll revisit over and over again. Bonkers, beautifully choreographed, and entertaining as hell, Free Fire is just a spectacularly good time. It's one of the fastest, funniest action movies I've seen in a long time.

Free Fire will hit theaters in 2017.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.4/10)

Image Credits: Indiewire, IMDBFlickering Myth

'Sully' review

I feel like I should start this review by saying that I have enormous respect for Clint Eastwood. The man is a Hollywood legend, and the fact that he is still working on such a large scale at the age of 86 is amazing. It has been an up-and-down ride for the last several years, but after the record-smashing box office and award success of American Sniper, there's no question that Eastwood is working at the top of his game. When it was first reported that the iconic director would be teaming up with superstar actor Tom Hanks for a biopic of hero pilot Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the idea was tantalizing. Eastwood excels with character work and raw tension, and while I had a few reservations, the film looked like a can't-miss project. Sadly, Sully ends up falling short in a multitude of areas, which is hugely disappointing considering the pedigree of the talent involved.

Some may argue that there was never a real cinematic story in the tale of Captain Sullenberger, but I disagree. The "Miracle on the Hudson" was one of the most inspiring stories of the last decade, and "Sully" Sullenberger became one of the iconic heroes of modern history. There's plenty of material here for a compelling movie, but the trouble is that Eastwood never finds it. Sully is dull and sluggish in all the wrong places, lacking any of the tension or dramatic momentum needed to tell such an incredibly powerful story. Sure, Hanks is brilliant as usual, giving subtle depth and humanity to a caring hero. But even his stellar performance can only carry the movie so far, as Sully eventually gets bogged down by some truly baffling choices and a sense of repetitive redundancy. Hanks and the inspirational true story may be great, but the movie is far from it.

The film starts its story after the crash, as the famed airline pilot (Hanks) is dealing with nightmares about the emergency landing that could have gone much, much worse. Sully has become an overnight sensation around the world, and it's a complex issue for such a humble, understated guy to grapple with. At the same time, Sully and his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart) are stuck in the midst of an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), with the board insisting that they did the wrong thing by landing the jumbo jet in the Hudson River. Eastwood then switches back to tell the story of the crash, giving us a glimpse into the fateful minutes aboard US Airways Flight 1549. With a whirlwind of media coverage, the sinking fear that he may have made the wrong choice, and some serious post traumatic stress, Sully will have to power through and prove that he's indeed the hero that the American public believes him to be.

Writing that synopsis was really difficult. I'm not just saying this to be mean to the movie or anything, because believe me, I truly wanted to like this film. I remember the story of "The Miracle on the Hudson" vividly, and as someone who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, the crash has become a small part of our city history (the plane was heading to Charlotte from LaGuardia- numerous references to the city drew laughs at my preview screening). But even with such a remarkable true story, Eastwood never gives you a reason to be invested in what's going on at all. The structure is bizarre and ineffective (this has drawn praise from many critics and I seriously cannot comprehend why), the character work is too slight to ever register, and ultimately, the movie is so focused on the crash sequence that it plays the damn thing twice. This movie can be immensely frustrating sometimes.

Hanks is obviously the best thing about Sully, and it's not even a close call. He'll probably be nominated for Best Actor this year at the Oscars, which means he'll fill the obligatory slot of "Great Performance in a Bad Movie." Hanks is an actor who can deliver an exceptional performance under almost any circumstance, and he injects a kindness into Captain Sullenberger that is invaluable to the success of the character. "Be sure to take a blanket, it'll be cold out there," says Hanks' Sully as he trudges his way through the inside of a water-logged plane, ensuring that each passenger is comfortable during the entirety of this disaster. Those moments of human goodness are the things that stick out, and when Eastwood captures that spirit, it's great. Unfortunately, those graceful sequences are few and far between in a bland film that never clicks.

The crash sequence is the centerpiece of the film, and I figured that even if the rest of Sully didn't work, we would get an amazing, thrilling recreation of the famed Hudson landing. While Eastwood seems to get many of the small details right in terms of just what happened during the crash, the scene is so dramatically inert that I seriously doubt if anyone will be excited, frightened, or harrowed by what they're seeing on screen. Look, I didn't need Eastwood to punch it up with overly melodramatic action movie music, but the truth is that he just didn't do enough to create an engaging cinematic recreation of this event. The scene happens right around the midway point of the movie, and when it was over, I found myself saying "Wait, that's it?"

But hold on, it gets even better. Just as Sully is nearing its conclusion, the crash scene is repeated again. To clarify, the final act of the movie centers around the NTSB hearing which was meant to settle the facts of the case once and for all. After watching airplane simulations of other pilots trying to make a return to LaGuardia (another strange, bizarre decision), the NTSB officer in charge (Mike O'Malley) orders for the cockpit recording of the incident to be played in front of everyone in the room. This prompts the movie to go through the crash sequence again, and not just part of it, but literally the entire thing from start to finish. If Eastwood had held off on showing us the crash until this part of the film, that may have actually been an interesting choice. But there was absolutely no reason for us to watch the scene again, and it just feels like the movie is killing time (it's an incredibly short 96 minutes) before wrapping things up.

Throughout the whole film, I found myself admiring what Eastwood was going for while simultaneously recognizing the huge flaws in its execution. With Sully, he's trying to give us a portrait of a quiet, unassuming hero, and the movie tries to convey that generous humility at every turn. But as a piece of cinema, it just never even comes close to working. Eastwood gets caught in the crossfire between what he's aiming for and traditional biopic conventions (some of the human interest subplots in this movie are cringeworthy), and it feels like an awkward balance at times. But most importantly, there's barely an arc to the story, and there doesn't seem to be much of a point beyond the honoring of an American hero. The modesty of the whole production ends up feeling quite dull, and as warmly inviting as the story is, it's tough to ever be really engaged by the film.

Sully is led by a charming enough performance from Tom Hanks, but there's just not enough here to warrant a trip to the theater. Eastwood seems to have the right idea for the story of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, and yet he doesn't get the job done, leaving us with a film that will likely make you question why you're watching it at every turn. A few interesting ideas float around but they're overwhelmed by some seriously bland storytelling, and when Eastwood runs out of things to say, the movie just kinda ends. I wanted to love this film, but instead, I'm gonna have to chalk it up as the first big disappointment of the fall movie season. When even a dramatization of one of the most famous events of the 21st century manages to come across as tedious and uninteresting, you know you've got a problem on your hands.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C-                                                (5/10)

Image Credits: Coming Soon, Joblo

Thursday, September 15, 2016

'Things to Come' review- TIFF 2016

Isabelle Huppert is having quite the year. She has been generating Oscar buzz for her performance in Paul Verhoeven's controversial rape thriller Elle (review for that one later), was the focus of a highly anticipated retrospective at TIFF, and stars in two other films that will hit American theaters this year. One of those films is Things to Come, the latest from acclaimed filmmaker Mia Hansen-Love, the director of Eden and Goodbye First Love. The film was an instant hit at the Berlin Film Festival back in February, and arrived at TIFF last week on a wave of positive reviews. And for the most part, I can understand why. It's a well-acted, well-directed, easy-going drama. Unfortunately, I can't say that I ever tuned into its wavelength in any meaningful way. Hansen-Love's emphasis on character and humanity is admirable, but with an excess of subplots, a relentlessly dour mood, and a lack of emotional impact, Things to Come doesn't quite hit the mark.

Nathalie Chazeauk (Huppert) is a middle-aged philosophy teacher in France, and at the start of the film, she's dealing with an uprising of students who are protesting outside the school building. She's annoyed by their persistence, but it soon turns out that the young protesters are the least of her problems. In a very short amount of time, Nathalie learns that her husband (played by Andre Macon) is cheating on her with a younger woman, that her mother is dying, and that her books aren't selling well, which could result in the loss of her job. To deal with this trauma, Nathalie reconnects with a brilliant student of hers, the charming Fabien (Roman Kolinka), who belongs to a group of anarchists and anti-establishment critical thinkers. Nathalie finds hope in her relationship with this group, and over the course of a year, she may just learn that there's much more to life beyond what has happened already.

Huppert is a great actress, and she's able to pull off this incredibly difficult part with ease. There's a graceful sensibility that she brings to this role, and she gives Nathalie an iron will and an unbreakable soul that I think will connect with a lot of people. Nathalie undergoes so many brutal and punishing things throughout this film, and it's a testament to Huppert's performance that things never get too downbeat. She's able to find the right combination of strength, humanity, and humor, and it keeps the movie afloat at times. Roman Kolinka, Edith Scob, and Andre Macon all deliver solid supporting performances, but from start to finish, there's no question that this is Isabelle Huppert's show. Even though her flashier performance in Elle is gaining more momentum with awards pundits, she's equally impressive here.

Hansen-Love is a thoughtful, contemplative director, and her style permeates every frame of this film. She has a spectacular cinematic eye and a keen sense of atmosphere and location, which works well here. However, in Things to Come, she never really buckles down to tell a focused story. She simply lets the film unfold as the characters engage and interact naturally. Sometimes this stylistic choice works, and other times, it causes the film to feel incredibly meandering. The script is ultimately the main point of concern, as there's simply too much going on and too little time. For a movie that only runs 100 minutes, Things to Come is quite the sprawling journey, with a wide variety of side plots and one-off stories that feel slighted.

Let me elaborate on that. In Things to Come, three things that happen to Nathalie are fundamental to the plot- she loses her job, she loses her mother, and she loses her husband. Those tragedies happen in quick succession of each other, and I really feel like the film would have been fine with just one of those events. The myriad of awfulness both suffocates the audience and hinders the focus of the film, which is forced to jump back and forth between these different stories. The film is also hesitant to truly delve deep into the relationship between Nathalie and Fabien, preferring to leave things ambiguous. The audience is left with plenty of questions there, and when you mix that in with the sometimes pretentious philosophizing that dominates large chunks of the movie, you have a serious problem on your hands.

Maybe you can chalk up Things to Come as a good movie that I just didn't appreciate, but I do think that there are some serious problems that many are ignoring. The story meanders, the character motivations don't always feel clear, and the film is overstuffed. If Hansen-Love had given herself a bit more time to play with these characters and their emotions, we might have a more resonant, fascinating film on our hands. Nonetheless, fans of the director and Huppert will be pleased, and I have to imagine that the story will play well with the arthouse crowds. It's a competent, crafty film on many levels, but with a disappointing screenplay and a scattered narrative, Things to Come ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                            (6.2/10)

Image Credits: IMDB

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

'Toni Erdmann' review- TIFF 2016

At the Cannes Film Festival, it seems like each year there's one movie that enters the fest as an unknown quantity and emerges as one of the most buzzed-about films of the year. Going into the 2016 festivities, there was already quite a bit of excitement for films like Jeff Nichols' Loving, Andrea Arnold's American Honey, Paul Verhoeven's Elle, and Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon. But before May, I had heard absolutely nothing about director Maren Ade's third film, Toni Erdmann. That changed rather quickly. Ade's film was embraced by nearly everyone at the festival, and the reviews were simply out of this world. There was a huge uproar when the Cannes Jury failed to give the film a single award, and in the subsequent months, Toni Erdmann began popping up on "Best of" lists everywhere. So with high hopes and the possibility of a foreign language Oscar play, Ade's film is now tackling the fall circuit. After a North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, Sony Pictures Classics took the film to Toronto last week, which is a festival that can often make or break a movie.

With months of hype surrounding it, my expectations truly couldn't have been higher for Toni Erdmann. The film runs 162 minutes in length, and to be quite honest, I wasn't planning on seeing the film unless it fit into my festival schedule perfectly. Surprisingly, it opened at the Ryerson Theatre on Thursday night, which was the best time that a nearly three hour long film could have played. So after a long and hectic day of travel, I sat down for my very first film at TIFF- a nearly three-hour long comedy. And for me, it lived up to the absurdly strong early reviews. Toni Erdmann is an uncommonly ambitious comedy, a corporate satire blended with goofy family hijinks. The characters can be grating and the humor is as dry as you can get, but for those with enough patience to let Ade and the cast take you on a crazy ride, Toni Erdmann works wonders.

Ines Conradi (Sandra Huller) is pretty much the definition of a workaholic. She is fully devoted to her job as a consultant at a major company, and she lives to please her bosses and create the best deal. In the midst of her workplace insanity, she has lost her sense of self. Enter Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek). Winfried is Ines' father, and he has a propensity for playing pranks on her and just about everyone else in her life. For the humorless Ines, this poses a major problem. After a lengthy visit, Ines kicks Winfried out (she seems to regret this at times, but her job is more important), and sends him back home. She knows that her father is dealing with a lot, including the loss of his dog, but she simply doesn't seem to care. But this is far from the end of the story. Winfried strikes back by taking on the disguise of Toni Erdmann, a corporate coach with a bad set of false teeth and a ratty wig. Their complex interactions spark a whole range of humorous incidents, and in the end, they just might change Ines for the better.

Do we need more people like Ines or more people like Winfried? This question lies at the heart of Toni Erdmann, and I think it's fundamental in understanding whether or not you'll enjoy this film. Ade's lengthy opus is an impassioned plea for humor in the world, a cry for people to not take things so seriously all the time. If you're somebody who hates pranksters and jokers like Winfried/Toni, there's a good chance that this movie will annoy the hell out of you. Winfried's constant obstruction of Ines' corporate life can grind on the nerves, and I've heard many people say that they hated this film just because of that character. For me, Winfried was the heart of the movie and a character that I loved spending time with. Every other character in Toni Erdmann is distant and chilly, and Winfried is the one shining light that brings some pathos to it all.

The arc of the story involves Winfried teaching Ines to lighten up her world, and the effectiveness comes from the dynamic performances at the center. Frankly, Sandra Huller's Ines is a mostly unlikable character at the start of the movie. She seems to have lost her personality in a wave of soul-sucking corporatism, which makes her transformation all the more impressive. Huller creates a beautiful portrait of a woman reclaiming her identity, and I really loved the way that she and Ade peeled away the layers of Ines as the film unfolded. Peter Simonischek gives one of the most impressive performances of the year as Winfried/Toni, a richly comedic portrayal of a goofball with a heart of gold. Simonischek has such expert delivery, and there's always a sly smile on his face that conveys Winfried's devilish charm with delicious simplicity. I loved this character, and although his chemistry with Huller is great, Simonischek's solo scenes are even funnier.

In a way, Toni Erdmann feels like a much smarter foreign version of a Judd Apatow movie, a family comedy with some serious bite. The Apatow comparison feels especially apt simply because of the length, which can grow tiresome sometimes. I understand why director Maren Ade felt that the movie needed to be nearly three hours long, but there are a few stretches that I can easily see being cut out. It's an excellent film in its current state, yet with some additional conciseness, I feel like this film would be even better. To be quite honest, that's my only real complaint about this film, as there's simply so much to adore. Since Toni Erdmann is a comedy, I feel like it's easy to discount how ambitious and unique this movie is. Basically, Ade has created an absurdist situational opus, a whirlwind blend of family dynamics, workaholicism, and cultural values. I've never seen anything like it before.

But most importantly, it is devastatingly funny, especially as the film reaches its climax. Toni Erdmann features some big laughs during the early goings, but Ade ratchets the hilarity up to a whole different level at the end. Just as you think that the film's momentum might be winding down, Ade slams you with one gut-busting sequence after another. There's a karaoke scene that caused my audience to spontaneously burst into applause, the arrival of a mystical furry creature of some sorts, and a nude scene that might just be the funniest sequence of the year so far. It's a brilliant, hysterical, and deeply human conclusion to a movie that blends so many emotions together successfully for 162 minutes. It's always important for a film to begin well, but if Toni Erdmann serves as a testament to anything, it's the power of a good ending.

Toni Erdmann surely won't be for everyone's taste, but for many film fans, Ade's critically acclaimed film will be extremely satisfying. It's funny, raunchy, touching, and sweet in equal measure, dominated by stellar performances, and it reaches a killer climatic point that will have you in stitches. But most importantly, I think that Toni Erdmann will make audiences reflect on their attitudes toward the world. The film did this for me, and I have a feeling that it will do so for others as well. Are we all just taking things too seriously all the time? Do we need to lighten up? I think so. In the end, we could all learn a thing or two from Toni Erdmann.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                             (8.4/10)

Image Credits: Indiewire, Flickering Myth, The Playlist