The end of the film-going year means lots and lots of lists, and my top 10 for 2014 will be on its way soon. In the meantime, check out The Film Stage’s Holiday Gift Guide. I contributed entries on a number of interesting cinema-related books, including new texts on De Niro and John Wayne.
A funny thing happened to “The Good Lie” on its way from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival to release in Buffalo: It disappeared. A public screening was held, but soon after, Warner Bros. yanked it from the studio’s release schedule. So sadly, my review of the film never ran in The Buffalo News. Here, in full, is my 3-star review.
There is something remarkable about “The Good Lie,” and it has to do with co-star Reese Witherspoon. The top half of the film’s poster features Witherspoon, wide-eyed, looking off into the distance with a smile on her face. Meanwhile, the actress appears in nearly two minutes of the film’s 2 minute, 30 second trailer.
What’s so remarkable about all that? Despite what the marketing campaign may have you believe, Witherspoon is not the star. In fact, she is the fourth lead in “The Good Lie,” a moving drama about three Sudanese refugees starting a new life in America.
They are the protagonists, and Witherspoon’s employment agency worker is merely a supporting player. Ponder that. Here is a major studio (Warner Bros.) star vehicle in which the three leads are played by Sudanese and Ugandan non-stars and the Heroic White Person is not the focus.
This crucial shift in perspective sets the film apart from well-intentioned but misguided dramas like “The Blind Side.” It also makes for a much stronger, more involving story.
As the film opens, a group of young children in the Sudan are forced to flee after their village is ripped apart by gunfire. Not all survive the seemingly endless walk over three countries, but at last, the four survivors arrive at a refugee camp, where they live among the thousands of displaced kids collectively referred to as the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”
Years pass, and young adults Mamere (British-Ugandan actor Arnold Oceng), Abital (Sudanese-American actress Kuoth Wiel), Jeremiah (Sudanese actor Ger Duany), and Paul (Sudanese actor Emmanuel Jal) long for the opportunity to relocate to the United States.
Finally, they are chosen, and told Kansas City will be their new home. However, the group’s joy is short-lived, as Abital instead must head to Boston. It’s a devastating moment for the foursome, and one of the film’s many examples of bureaucratic nonsense.
Now a trio, Mamere, Jeremiah, and Paul continue their journey to Kansas City and are eventually met at the airport by a brash but good-humored employment agency worker, Carrie Davis, winningly played by Witherspoon.
She is taken aback by the sweet, good-natured group, and so is the audience. The performances of Oceng, Duany, and Jal are so winning, and so believable, that it is hard not to be charmed. They are unaware of telephones, McDonald’s, and pizza, and that is played for laughs — perhaps too many laughs, actually.
The film’s middle section focuses on the struggles Mamere, Jeremiah, and Paul face in the working world, while also developing Witherspoon’s Carrie. Her compassion for the trio grows, and soon she is helping in their attempts to reunite with Abital.
“The Good Lie” ties things up a bit too neatly, moves past some of the struggles refugees face on a daily basis a little too quickly, and includes a few too many culture-shock jokes, but it is undeniably moving. The film’s final chunk, featuring a satisfying if not unsurprising twist, is particularly effective.
Director Philippe Falardeau’s somber 2012 drama “Monsieur Lazhar” received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and his follow-up is an ambitious one. He impressively juggles a large cast and locations on two continents, and manages to avoid the syrupy turns that can plague similarly ripped-from-the-headlines stories.
The lead trio is particularly strong, and Witherspoon, “House of Cards” vet Corey Stoll make the most of their supporting roles.
What is most impressive — and downright admirable — is that the film brings the story of Sudan’s Lost Boys to the masses from the Lost Boys’ perspective. It’s a story that must be told, and if it needs a Hollywood star and a happy ending to be palatable, so be it.
I have written a Toronto International Film Festival piece for Buffalo Spree’s November issue for the last seven years, and it is always a joy to write. This year, sadly, my piece did not get posted on the Spree website, instead running only in the November 2014 print issue. So here is my TIFF14 feature, in full.
A random attendee of September’s 2014 Toronto International Film Festival might have taken a stroll down “Festival Street,” a new several-blocks-long area of food trucks, live performances, tables, and assorted cinephile delights, including Bill Murray masks and the twin girls from The Shining, and wondered how anyone besides those stuck in their car could see this year’sTIFF as anything but a resounding success. (The first Friday of the festival, in fact, was decalred “Bill Murray Day,” and featured screenings of three of his classics as well as the premiere of his latest, St. Vincent.) Festival Street closed down a significant stretch of King Street, royally messing up traffic, but for those wandering in front of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the vibe was utterly vibrant. So in many ways, that random festival attendee is correct. After all, festival venues were full, stars could be spotted in abundance, and there was even a hockey documentary, for goodness sake’s.
But behind-the-scenes, there was drama, drama, drama. TIFF takes place shortly after two of the world’s major film fests, in Venice and Telluride. In recent years, the latter fest has increasingly drawn the eyes of cine-media and the adoration of filmmakers. It has also premiered some major films (Gravity, 12 Years a Slave), just days before they were set to screen in Toronto. TIFF took action, allowing only films making their world or North American premieres to screen during the first four days of the festival. This meant that the festival’s prime timeframe did not feature some of this year’s biggest films—among them Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, Reese Witherspoon in Wild, Steve Carrel and Channing Tatum inFoxcatcher, and the Jon Stewart-directed Rosewater.
Despite the party-like atmosphere on Festival Street, then, among the assembled press corps there was some heavy grumbling. Due to the obligations of real life, I am only able to attend on the festival’s first Friday through Sunday, meaning many of the most high-profile entries unspooled long after I hit the QEW. A bummer? Certainly.
That was behind the scenes and beyond the screens, of course. When it comes to the actual movies, whether a world premiere or not, there was plenty to savor. There was Nightcrawler, a whip-smart media satire starring a creepily unhinged Jack Gyllenhaal. (And, it was a world premiere!) Several Cannes Film Festival favorites crossed the pond and blew minds, including Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, featuring awards-worthy work from Juliette Binoche and (especially) Kristen Stewart, as well as Russian tragedy Leviathan. Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, and Adam Driver was as well-received as his last TIFF entry, Frances Ha, and was smartly picked up for distribution by A24.The Duke of Burgundy was the surprise of the festival, an exquisite and darkly humorous story of sadomasochism and butterfly experts. (Seriously.) Eden told of the early days of groundbreaking, early-90s French techno, even featuring actors playing Daft Punk, sans robot masks. And in the conventional but undeniably powerful The Theory of Everything, Les Miserables star Eddie Redmayne stunningly portrays Stephen Hawking, and is matched by an excellent Felicity Jones as his first wife.
Those are just a few of the festival’s most well-received films. There were many others I missed, of course, including Chris Rock’s Top Five, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, Sundance smash Whiplash, and Mike Leigh’s J. M. W. Turner biopic, Mr. Turner. There were also some wonderful under-the-radar successes, including National Gallery, Spring, and In the Crosswind, as well lesser but still worthy fare like They Have Escaped, Life in a Fishbowl, The Wanted 18, and the slick but empty (and ludicrously titled) Who Am I—No System is Safe.
And of course, there were disasters, including both Adam Sandler vehicles (The Cobbler and Men, Women & Children) and the WTF? opening night premiere, The Judge, starring Robery Downey, Jr. As many have remarked, the festival’s recent opening night premieres have been, well, awful. Perhaps Bill Murray Day should have been on the day one, rather than day two.
At this point, there is no telling if TIFF’s world premiere policy is the new norm, or a one-year experiment. My loonie is on the latter. Even though I understand the rationale behind the policy, it’s a bit sad, really, that Oscar jockeying is seemingly considered more important than the goal of presenting great films to as wide an audience of attendees as possible. When theTIFF-going public voted 12 Years a Slave, The King’s Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire as the winners of the festival’s People’s Choice Award, they were not thinking about awards bloggers, studio PR flacks, or festival figureheads. They were thinking about what film hit them hardest. The experience of being enraptured by cinema is what I love most about TIFF, and no amount of backstage drama can erase that feeling. Premiere, sh-remiere. Okay, that was awkward, but you get it. See you on Festival Street in 2015.
Film critic Christopher Schobert covered TIFF14 for Spree and the Buffalo News, and also contributed to Indiewire’s The Playlist, The Film Stage, and his blog, FilmSwoon.com.
Festival Street, Kubrick Characters in celebration of the upcoming Stanley Kubrick exhibition at TIFF Bell Lightbox
Credit: George Pimentel, WireImage/Getty for TIFF
Clouds of Sils Maria: Juliette Binoche
Credit: Courtesy of TIFF
“Whiplash” is one of the most exhilarating films in years, and certainly one of the finest of 2014. It’s also one that may end up severely misunderstood. Many reviews are taking the theme as very direct: The only way to become a great artist is through merciless practice, preferably under the tutelage of a tyrant.
I’m not sure it is quite so clear cut. Yes, the movie ends — SPOILER — with Andrew finally winning the respect and approval of the drill sergeant-esque Fletcher. For a few moments, at least. It is a victory, to be sure, but not necessarily an indication of stardom, or even greatness. This success does not mean director Damien Chazelle necessarily believes it was all worth it, or that he agrees with Fletcher’s methods. It is an ending, period.
There is also the much-debated Charlie Parker story. In the film, Fletcher uses it to demonstrate that “Bird”’s genius would never have been apparent were it not for the violent cymbal toss from drummer Jo Jones. As many have since pointed out, the anecdote is apparently incorrect. But that, too, does not mean Chazelle’s “argument” is flawed. I think Fletcher’s incorrect interpretation is actually more interesting, and more befitting of the character. Of course he would have it wrong!
Above all else, “Whiplash” is an actor’s showcase, and stars Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are note-perfect. I cannot imagine anyone topping Simmons in this year’s Best Supporting Actor race, and Teller is deserving of a Best Actor. It is too bad that in a year filled with noteworthy lead performances, he is unlikely to snag a nomination.
Chazelle’s “Whiplash” is a four-star masterpiece, and will certainly end the year near the top of my 2014 10-best list. It is now playing in Buffalo, and is not to be missed.
My main thought while watching the war-photographer drama “A Thousand Times Good Night” was how good Juliette Binoche is — always. Her performance in “Clouds of Sils Maria” was one of my TIFF favorites, and while her work in “A Thousand” is not quite as noteworthy, it is still strong, believable, compelling stuff.
Here is my three-star review from the Buffalo News. The film opened on Friday at the North Park.
Is there a more compelling actress than Juliette Binoche? Consider her résumé, one dotted with sterling performances in modern classics such as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blue,” Michael Haneke’s “Caché” and Leos Carax’s “Lovers on the Bridge.”
Those are but three examples. Binoche has worked with some of the world’s greatest filmmakers – not just Haneke and Carax but Jean-Luc Godard, Olivier Assayas and Abbas Kiarostami (to say nothing of the late Kieslowski).
Binoche is so good that she can elevate a so-so film single-handedly. Such is the case with “A Thousand Times Good Night,” a handsome, involving, unexceptional English-language debut for Norwegian director Erik Poppe.
It has the look and feel of a well-meaning made-for-HBO drama of the early ’90s, never quite becoming anything more than a respectful, character-driven look at what it means to work (but not live) in a war zone.
As “A Thousand Times” opens, Binoche’s Rebecca, a well-known photographer, shoots the preparations of a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. In the ensuing blast, she is physically and mentally injured.
Rebecca’s husband Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, “Game of Thrones”) comes to her aid, but there is clearly a divide in the marriage. While Rebecca “hangs around in war zones,” as one character puts it, her husband and two daughters are home in Ireland, expecting the worst.
Marcus wants Rebecca to give up her dangerous occupation and remain home, and it is nice to see the typical gender roles reversed – the wife the doer, the husband the spouse with the furrowed brow. Yet the film is a little too eager to paint Rebecca as the villain and Marcus as the heroic parent.
This feeling becomes even more pronounced as the film progresses. The couple’s oldest daughter, Steph (Lauryn Canny), grows interested in her mother’s work and soon accompanies her to an African refugee camp.
But when violence breaks out, Rebecca must make a quick decision whether to document the situation for the world, or leave safely with her daughter. Her choice affects the rest of the film, and, it is clear, the rest of her life.
After this fateful experience, “A Thousand Times Good Night” becomes saturated with melodrama, even concluding with a weepy class project – in front of the whole school – and lessons learned. Only in its final minutes do we return to the “passion” and “fire,” as Rebecca puts it to Marcus, that makes her such a bold character.
It’s a flawed but reasonably solid effort from director Poppe, who keeps the nearly two-hour film moving. He ends things on a smartly ambiguous note, accompanied by a lovely, Dido-ish closing credits song from Norwegian singer Ane Brun (called “Daring to Love”).
But the film belongs to Binoche, who gives an emotionally complex performance that is always believable. Her acting, in fact, is award-worthy, although this small film is unlikely to garner the necessary support for such a prize.
So “A Thousand Times Good Night” is eons away from Binoche’s greatest, but she brings to it the same level of emotion, candor and humanity that makes her consistently wonderful.
One of my favorite films at TIFF14, “Nightcrawler,” is finally playing nationwide. Here are some thoughts I wrote for The Buffalo News during the festival.
After last year’s Toronto International Film Festival double-whammy of “Prisoners” and “Enemy,” and now TIFF14’s stunning “Nightcrawler,” Jake Gyllenhaal might be ready to wear the crown of festival king.
The latter, from director Dan Gilroy, is a TIFF smash, winning over critics and audiences with its piercing view of the creation of a monster — in this case, an amoral videographer with a lust for graphic violence he can sell to a TV news producer well-played by Rene Russo.
But this is Gyllenhaal’s show, and he gives an Oscar-worthy performance.
During a Q&A, the actor spoke of “falling in love” with the character, and it shows. It’s hard to say he brings humanity to the part, but he certainly brings believability.
“Nightcrawler” opens in October, and should shock and thrill mainstream audiences in equal measure — if they are not so disgusted that they walk out.
Stick with it. This is one of the year’s best films.
It has been awhile since I ran through a heaping helping of recent films I’ve seen, and assigned them a star rating, so here goes. I’m not including films from TIFF since I already covered those, and I’m also leaving off ratings for reviews I have recently posted here.
Please note there is no order here — I’m just too lazy to bother sorting.
- Birdman: 4 stars
- Gone Girl: 31/2 stars
- The Good Lie: 3 stars
- A Summer Tale: 3 stars
- The Trip to Italy: 3 ½ stars
- Guardians of the Galaxy: 3 stars
- X-Men: Days of Future Past: 3 stars
- Rio 2: 2 stars
- Lucy: 3 stars
- Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: 2 ½ stars
- Boyhood: 4 stars
- Magic in the Moonlight: 3 stars
- The Skeleton Twins: 3 ½ stars
- Snowpiercer: 3 ½ stars
- Ida: 4 stars
- Locke: 3 stars
- Nymphomaniac: Volume I: 3 ½ stars
- Venus in Fur: 2 ½ stars
- Jimi: All Is By My Side: 3 stars
- Nymphomaniac: Volume II: 3 stars
- A Five Star Life: 2 stars
- Ernest & Celestine: 2 ½ stars
- The Zero Theorem: 2 stars
- 20,000 Days on Earth: 4 stars
- Bjork — Biophilia Live: 3 stars
- David Bowie Is: 2 ½ stars
- Breathe In: 3 stars
- Wetlands: 2 ½ stars
- The Infinite Man: 2 ½ stars
- 1,000 Times Good Night: 3 stars
- Love is in the Air: 2 stars
- Postman Pat: The Movie: 2 ½ stars
- Life After Beth: 2 stars
- A Coffee in Berlin: 2 stars
- The Fault in Our Stars : 3 ½ stars
- Cold in July: 3 ½ stars
- Obvious Child : 3 ½ stars
- Belle: 3 stars
- The Rover: 2 ½ stars
- God’s Pocket: 2 stars
- Night Moves: 3 stars
- Transcendence : 1 ½ stars
- Dom Hemingway: 3 stars
- The Amazing Spider-Man 2: 1 ½ stars
- The Railway Man: 2 stars
- On My Way: 2 ½ stars
- Divergent: 2 ½ stars
- Noah: 3 stars
- 300: Rise of an Empire: 2 stars
- Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit: 2 stars
- The Lunchbox : 3 stars
- The Raid 2: 3 ½ stars
- RoboCop: 1 ½ stars
- Veronica Mars: 2 ½ stars
- Some Velvet Morning : 3 stars
- Adult World: 2 stars
- Joe: 3 ½ stars
- Tim’s Vermeer: 3 stars
- Alan Partridge : 3 stars
- The Kings of Summer : 2 stars
- The Book Thief: 2 ½ stars
- The Monuments Men: 2 ½ stars
Here is a recent Buffalo News Gusto post that takes a look at one of filmdom’s most interesting filmmakers, albeit one whose resume veers wildly between “great” and “awful”: Brian DePalma.
Brian De Palma became a successful director right along with fellow “movie brats” Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese, but he has certainly had the most up and down career of that foursome. Spielberg is the world’s most famous filmmaker, Lucas can buy and sell small countries, and Scorsese is seen by many as America’s greatest living director.
De Palma, on the other hand, still struggles. Yes, “Scarface” is iconic, “Carrie” still scares, “The Untouchables” and “Mission: Impossible” were hits, and films like “Blow Out” and “Carlito’s Way” are now given their just due. But then there are the mighty flops — “Wise Guys,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” “The Black Dahlia,” 2012’s awful “Passion.”
One of his weirdest and most fascinating films, 1974’s musical “Phantom of the Paradise,” is showing at 7 p.m. Oct. 14 and 9:15 p.m. Oct. 17 at in the Screening Room Cinema Cafe (3131 Sheridan Drive, Amherst) to commemorate its 40th anniversary. Whether one is a De Palma obsessive or a newbie, it’s a cult classic that still entertains.
“Paradise” is a loose adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera” with a killer lead performance from William Finley and memorable songs by co-star Paul Williams. Seeing the incomparable Williams serves as a reminder to check out the moving documentary “Paul Williams: Still Alive,” which is available for rental on iTunes and Amazon
As the documentary details, the film proved enormously popular in Winnipeg, of all places, even inspiring two “Phantompaloozas” that reunited the cast. Go figure.
The Oct. 17 Screening Room presentation of “Phantom of the Paradise” will be preceded by Mel Brook’s “Young Frankenstein,” also showing Oct. 18, 21, 23 and 24.
For more info, visit www.screeningroomboutiquecinemas.com.
We are now well into the fall movie season, and there are many biggies I still need to see (Foxcatcher, Whiplash, The Imitation Game), but I’ve had the opportunity to see several that will continue to make waves throughout the Oscar campaign — Birdman, The Theory of Everything, and others.
Interestingly, of my three 2014 Toronto International Film Festival favorites, only one will see a release this year. Here is my TIFF top three:
The Duke of Burgundy
While only attending TIFF for a few days, I saw at least five very good films (the three mentioned here, as well as Nightcrawler and Leviathan), not to mention a few right on the cusp. But something surprising occurred to me a few days after the festival: The film I keep pondering, keep revisiting, and keep wanting to watch again is Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy. This visually sumptuous, aesthetically sublime study of role-playing and sadomasochism (but funny!) is a true stunner, and certain to become a cult classic. It is no exaggeration to say you’ve never seen anything quite like it. And while Strickland deserves much of the credit, as does the credited creator of its perfumes (the credit reads “Perfume by Je Suis Gizelle”), the performances of co-leads Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna are especially worthy of praise.
While We’re Young
As I explained in my Film Stage review, Noah Baumbach’s latest film might be his strongest to date. It also might be his most conventional, but he handles the standard tropes of this growing-old-ain’t-easy tale with ease. The script is wildly funny, the soundtrack smart, and the performances across-the-board brilliant.
Clouds of Sils Maria
Olivier Assayas’s Cannes hit was the first film I saw at TIFF14, and it was a ravishing, ambitious beginning. Full of mystery and unforgettable imagery, Clouds is another fascinating step in the career of a filmmaker at the peak of his powers. Binoche is typically wonderful as an actress revisiting the play that made her a star, but Kristen Stewart is a revelation as her assistant. There were numerous great performances at TIFF this year — Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything — but I’m not sure one has stayed with me like Stewart’s in Sils Maria.
For more on TIFF14 favorites, including a contribution from me, check out The Film Stage’s breakdown:
Another week, another Buffalo News review, this one of “God Help the Girl,” the first film written and directed by Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch. I gave it three stars.
Fans of movie musicals like “Les Misérables” or “Chicago” might see that “God Help the Girl” is a musical, nestle into their seat, watch and walk out wondering what on earth they just saw.
That might be bad news for show-tune junkies, but it’s good news for indie rock (and indie film) aficionados. For here at last is the directorial debut of Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch, a twee-to-the-extreme, mostly charming, coming-of-age tale that both delights and confounds.
For fans of Belle and Sebastian, the Glasgow-based band that very quietly burst onto the post-Britpop music landscape in the mid-to-late-1990s, it can’t be missed. Not since Prince’s “Purple Rain” – to say nothing of Insane Clown Posse’s “Big Money Rustlas” – has a musician-directed film so captured the feel and lyrical tendencies of the artist.
The oh-so Belle and Sebastian-y main character is Eve, played by the superb Emily Browning, and as “God Help the Girl” opens, she is recovering from a battle with anorexia. This makes for a strong backstory, although the seriousness of the subject often seems at odds with the horn-rimmed glasses and hey-let’s-start-a-band! air of it all.
Eve is a lover of pop music and a budding songwriter, and this interest takes her to Glasgow, where she meets bespectacled beanpole lifeguard James (Olly Alexander), a wry, anti-Bowie singer-songwriter.
James is stunned by Eve’s songs, which, like Stuart Murdoch’s, are simultaneously sweet and sour. The film’s greatest songs, in fact, capture the Motown-meets-Morrissey stomp of Belle and Sebastian classics like “Lazy Line Painter Jane,” and make for a must-own soundtrack of blissful pop.
James introduces Eve to his guitar student, posh Cassie (Hannah Murray, best known as “Game of Thrones’ ” Gilly), and this trio spends the summer writing songs and putting a band together.
It’s a plot with the weight of a floppy disk, to be sure, and at nearly two hours, it often seems ready to blow away like dandelion seeds. The first hour, especially, is far, far too drawn out.
But then, roughly one hour in, just as the trio truly forms the band, “God Help the Girl” bursts into vivid life.
Specifically, as the community music hall strut of “I’ll Have to Dance With Cassie” kicks in, one of 2014’s most deliriously joyful scenes is unveiled. (Sample lyrics: “Shuffle to the left! … Boogie to the right!”) This is also one of many scenes that will thoroughly satisfy some audiences, and thoroughly annoy others.
After a standout scene in which a despondent Eve dances to the great “Musician, Please Take Heed,” the film takes another dark turn, and loses much of its steam. It rebounds, however, with a final fab song, and an appropriately wistful ending.
So “God Help the Girl” is not a film for devotees of old-school musical cinema. It is, instead, a creation for those with Smiths’ “Meat is Murder” tees lurking in their closet and awkward romantic fumblings in their past.
Even these audience members might admit, however, that it is only during the musical moments that “Girl” truly takes flight. This is the fault of Murdoch the writer. Murdoch the director, on the other hand, can be commended for bringing a Technicolor visual panache to so many scenes.
He also deserves credit for the casting of Browning, Alexander and Williams. It is Emily Browning’s first great performance (sorry, “Sucker Punch”), and the likably amateurish Olly Alexander (real-life frontman for the band Years & Years) is a fine match.
Like the songs Eve and James sing, “God Help the Girl,” is often silly, but it is always a charmer. Confidently dorky, with an unadulterated love of pop music coursing through its veins, it is a romantic embrace of indie rock and indie film idealism that, at its best moments, makes for a transformative experience – and a wonderful excuse for dancing.