Sundance Film Festival review: ‘Sweet Country’

I missed “Sweet Country” at TIFF, but had the chance to review it for The Film Stage during its presentation at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

At the very end of Sweet Country, director Warwick Thornton’s stunning, somber outback western, an emotionally devastated cattle rancher played by the great Sam Neill offers two questions to the clouds: “What chance have we got? What chance has this country got?” It’s the sorrowful capper to a powerfully upsetting film. And it’s entirely fitting. Sweet Country is many things — a stark western, a gripping chase story, a tale of slavery and self-defense, and a searing drama in which the stakes are horrifically high.

Set in Australia’s Northern Territory in the late 1920s, the film is anchored by Hamilton Morris, a non-professional actor who gives a simple, tremendously engaging performance. Morris plays Sam Kelly, an aboriginal stockman who works for Neill’s Fred Smith. The latter is a vocal Christian and one of the few onscreen whites who does not openly discriminate. Thus he is the opposite of Harry March (Ewen Leslie). A cruel war veteran and drunk, March is in need of helping hands. Smith makes the mistake of sending Sam and his wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber), to work for March, and the effects for all concerned are seismic. (A nightmarish scene of March assaulting Lizzie in a pitch-dark room is particularly effective.)

Once work is done, Sam is forced to kill March in self-defense. Doing so likely saves his life, Lizzie’s, and that of a young aboriginal boy named Philomac (Tremayne Doolan). But Sam has a keen understanding of his place in Australian society. He and Lizzie are voiceless, and their lives expendable. Hot on their trail is Sergeant Fletcher (big-screen vet Bryan Brown), a merciless authority figure intent on finding the killer. He is the leader of a motley posse that also includes Smith — a scene in which Neill poorly sings a Christian song around the campfire provides the only notable laughs — and an Aboriginal tracker named Archie. The latter is one of Sweet Country’s most interesting figures. Archie knows his role, yet also offers one of the film’s standout lines: “It’s not my country. My country’s far away.”

Indigenous Australians, like Sam and Archie, are referred to here as “blackfellas,” and they are treated with little more than contempt. This makes the makeshift trial of Sam particularly fascinating. And the presence of aboriginal voices makes Sweet Country a more profound and memorable western than, say, John Hillcoat’s The Proposition. Some of Country’s most sadly insightful scenes feature Sam and Lizzie alone around the campfire, remarking on the “troubles” that are coming.

What Sweet Country lacks in surprises is more than compensated for with emotional power and haunting images. The outback has rarely looked so harsh and unforgiving. Australian director Warwick Thornton, whose debut feature Samson and Delilah earned the Caméra d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, achieves something rather noteworthy here. He has created a film set in eerie, wide-open spaces that also feels utterly claustrophobic. There is nowhere for Sam and Lizzie to hide, and no place that feels the least bit welcoming.

Never is this truer than during the film’s final moments. And while the conclusion feels a bit predictable, it is indeed potent. As Neill cries out in sadness, it is hard not to feel overcome by Sweet Country’s grim strength. Thornton establishes himself as a director to watch, and with fine performances from Neill, Brown, Gorey-Furber, and, especially, Hamilton Morris, also reveals an ability to make an epic tale feel deeply personal.

Sweet Country screened at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released this spring.

Review: ‘Paddington 2’ is a genuine delight (for The Film Stage)

I reviewed Paddington 2 for The Film Stage, and gave the film an A-.

We’re just a few weeks into 2018, but a very early candidate for Most Charming Film has arrived. Paddington 2 is a genuine delight, a sequel that improves upon its (very good) predecessor. It is also the rare family film that has appeal for everyone in the family. As with 2014’s Paddington, director Paul King has zeroed in on the inherent magic of Michael Bond’s classic stories while incorporating scores of Wes Anderson-esque sight gags. Plus, there is a game cast of British heavyweights — Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Jim Broadbent, and, this time around, a superb Hugh Grant — and gorgeous London locations. Most of all, there is the titular bear himself, a wondrous CGI creation sweetly voiced by Ben Whishaw. It is not hyperbolic to call Paddington one of the most adorably life-like computer-animated characters in cinema. He is the anti-Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, an anthropomorphic triumph whose interactions with humans are always believable.

The first film saw Paddington leave darkest Peru for the busy world of London. Arriving all alone, he was discovered at Paddington Station by the Browns — mother Mary (Hawkins), father Henry (Bonneville), and children Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) — and soon taken into their home. The endearing, marmalade-devouring bear endears himself to the Browns, the family’s housekeeper (Mrs. Bird, played by Julie Walters), and Londoners like antiques dealer Mr. Gruber (Broadbent). Best known for his work on groundbreaking U.K. comedy series The Mighty Boosh, King proved himself the ideal director for this uniquely detailed universe. Paddington was something of a surprise hit, and deservedly so.

The gang is all back in Paddington 2, minus the first film’s evil taxidermist, memorably played by Nicole Kidman. Paddington is an important part of the community, and an established member of the Brown household. However, he misses his beloved Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton), who now resides at the Home for Retired Bears in Lima, Peru. (The latter is one of many lovely details taken directly from Michael Bond’s stories.) For her 100th birthday, Paddington hopes to buy an expensive London pop-up book for sale at Mr. Gruber’s antiques shop. However, this is no ordinary book. And the only individual who knows this is the pompous, over-the-hill actor Phoenix Buchanan. He is played by Hugh Grant as the epitome of the haughty Actor-with-a-Capital-“A.”

Buchanan is a master of disguise, and also something of a maniac. He is hell-bent on funding a one-man-show that he believes will return him to glory, and money is an essential element of his plan. Paddington spots him breaking into Mr. Gruber’s shop, but is mistakenly tagged as the culprit. Sweet, cheerful Paddington bear is soon convicted, and sent to the slammer. Here, he meets a ragtag group of prisoners that includes glowering prison cook Knuckles McGinty, a glorious creation played by Brendan Gleeson. Against all odds, Paddington helps the prison become a culinary and aesthetic wonder. Meanwhile, the Browns work to clear his name, and Phoenix Buchanan follows the clues embedded in the pop-up book.

The charm of Whishaw, Hawkins, Bonneville, Walter, Gleeson, and even Grant cannot be overstated. King’s visual mastery is evident through it, most notably during the Grand Budapest Hotel-esque prison sequences. Notably, there is also an anti-Brexit undercurrent coursing through the film, which has already been commented during its 2017 release in the U.K., and it is indeed unmistakable. Paddington is, of course, an immigrant, and his London neighborhood is a hub of cultural diversity. The Browns’ sneering neighbor, Mr. Curry (a perfectly cast Peter Capaldi reprises his Paddington role), serves as a particularly vocal critic of the young bear’s influence on Windsor Gardens. The most explicit argument is a scene of the Browns’ sputtering car being started by the neighbors, much to the consternation of Mr. Curry. (The family plows directly into Mr. Curry’s neighborhood alert sign; he’s set it to “wild hysteria.”) While the parallels are clear, King is careful not to overwhelm the audience. Most parents should appreciate the message, while most children will see their own feelings emboldened.

The film never loses its spirit of harmony, even during its lengthy railroad chase ending. Throughout, it is a marvel of humor, dazzling visuals, and unique characters. Calling it a “kids film” is a disservice; Paul King has directed an of-the-moment family comedy that rivals any in recent memory. Paddington 2 closes with an elaborate musical number in which one of the film’s main characters (no spoilers!) sings Sondheim’s “Rain on the Roof” accompanied by dancing prisoners. It is impossible not to find the sequence highly amusing, just as it’s impossible not to find the film as a whole to be utterly charming. The family film bar has been raised — and lovingly covered in marmalade — thanks to this delightful cinematic start to 2018.

The top 15 films of 2017 … according to me

My top 10 (and five honorable mention) films of 2017 is now posted at The Film Stage and on Letterboxd.

The year in film cannot be pondered without first mentioning something that may or may fall under the classification of “cinema.” (I’m on team Sight & Sound with this one.) Twin Peaks: The Return stunned, intrigued, cajoled, and rattled in deep and profound ways. Nothing else released in 2017 compared to it, really. However, like Twin Peaks, all of the films included on my list of the year’s best made a troubling world seem a bit more tolerable.

Note: The only major film I was unable to see in 2017 was Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. I recall the same happened with Inherent Vice in 2014. Vice would’ve rocketed to the top three on that year’s best list… and I wonder if I’ll have the same feeling after seeing Phantom.

 

  1. Columbus (kogonada)

Columbus might be the quietest drama of 2017. It’s also one of the best. This breathtakingly intimate, contemplative film is anchored by two stunning performances from John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson, and beautifully directed and written by newcomer kogonada. Much of the film involves sitting, chatting quietly, and thinking. These scenes are handled with such care and performed with such astonishing intimacy that they feel genuinely thrilling. There’s a sense of being present in “real world” conversations, not dialogue crafted to move the plot forward. kogonada has created a drama that will hold great appeal to architecture buffs, those interested in the presentation of Asian Americans onscreen, and, well, anyone who can appreciate an involving character study of two young people waiting for the rest of their lives to begin.

  1. Wonderstruck (Todd Haynes)

With Wonderstruck, Todd Haynes has created a bold, tremendously original film that I expect will be adored for years to come. It transports the viewer to places that are long, long gone: Manhattan in the 1920s, the down-and-dirty Big Apple of the 1970s. And it tells two stories — separated by several decades — that are as affecting as any in recent cinema. The gentle, heartbreakingly exquisite Wonderstruck may at first seem something of a departure for Haynes. However, he has always been a successful chronicler of the outsider. His adaptation of Brian Selznick’s 2011 book is a gloriously involving tale, one infused with imagination and mystery. And the performances from its three young leads — Millicent Simmonds as Rose, Oakes Fegley as Ben, and Jaden Michael as Jamie — are enchanting.

  1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson)

How apropos that early in The Last Jedi, we watch a bitter, aged Luke Skywalker toss his old lightsaber over his shoulder. It’s a joke, but a telling one — and a bold one, at that. Rian Johnson’s brilliant deconstruction of Star Wars and the importance of the Skywalker clan was the most entertaining film of 2017, and one that grows even stronger on repeat viewings. This is Rey’s story now, and what’s particularly exciting is the sense that the future of the saga is a question mark. Johnson has given the Star Wars writers and directors of tomorrow an opportunity to go someplace new. At the same time, he hit the required beats and feels (and Porgs). If I had fantasized about a new Star Wars film in the 80s or early 90s, The Last Jedi is what I would’ve imagined.

  1. Get Out (Jordan Peele)

Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a horror film, of course, and a psychologically overwhelming one. But it’s also a searing drama that is unsettling, disturbing, even awe-inducing. Peele’s twisty script was a marvel of tension and surprising reveals, but it’s his direction that makes the film such an entertaining experience. Watching Get Out in a packed theater was an essential 2017 moment. AndGet Out might be 2017’s most essential statement. It is a rarity for a blockbuster to hit such profound heights.

  1. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas)

There are several sequences in Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper in which no words are spoken, and the only sounds are the tapping of text messages. Thanks to Assayas’s direction and script, and the stunning performance of Kristen Stewart, these scenes are thrilling, nerve-wracking, and unexpectedly suspenseful. Re-teaming after Clouds of Sils Maria, this director and star hit new cinematic heights. Personal Shopper is a ghost story, yes, but so much more. In fact, it is bold, hugely original modern classic with a final scene that is unforgettable. The film does not supply answers, but why should it? Personal Shopper is all about the questions, and its sense of yearning is astonishing.

  1. Mudbound(Dee Rees)

Whether you saw Dee Rees’s Mudbound at Sundance, at the Toronto International Film Festival, or in your home after its November 17 Netflix debut, the response was likely the same: emotional devastation. The story of two families and two World War II veterans in Mississippi is an American epic, one made with unflinching honesty. Mary J. Blige and Carey Mulligan shine here, but the two most startling performances come from Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund. Their portrayals of GIs dealing PTSD and racism are astounding. It all culminates in a final stretch that begins like a nightmare, but ends with a feeling of real joy. Bravo to the immensely talented Rees for crafting an extraordinary, shattering film.

  1. Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)

Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name might not be the most memorable love story of the year — see the film in my No. 1 slot — but it’s the most deliriously sensual and uniquely joy-filled. Guadagnino has long been adept at establishing a unique setting, and he does so here just as effectively as author André Aciman did in his novel. The picturesque, sun-soaked Italian location feels eminently livable, and the characters believable. In fact, it’s the relationships that truly engage — between Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), Elio and his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), and even between Elio’s father and mother (Amira Casar). It’s the rare film in which a sequel is not just desirable, but downright necessary. Let’s swim with these characters again. And maybe again after that.

  1. The Florida Project (Sean Baker)

How exactly did Sean Baker do it? How did the director of Tangerine make this story of a mother and daughter living at a rundown motel outside of Walt Disney World in Orlando so joyous, sad, and utterly insightful? Young star Brooklynn Prince is essential to its success; she gives one of the most natural performances I’ve seen from a child. And the great Willem Dafoe, of course, has never been better — or sweeter. But Baker deserves the highest praise. He has constructed a film about children and parents that is truly insightful. Does Moonee deserve better? Without question. But Baker shows that even in situations as messy as the those depicted in The Florida Project, there can be deep love. And that counts for something.

  1. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)

Lady Bird is one of the year’s great joys. Greta Gerwig’s debut as a solo writer-director is so wise, so funny, and so remarkably assured that it seems to have flown in out of nowhere. Where did this nearly perfect coming-of-age comedy and emotionally affecting study of youth, social status, and financial malaise come from? There have been several very strong female-led stories of adolescence in recent years — The Edge of Seventeen and The Diary of a Teenage Girl among them. Those films were quite good, but neither quite nailed the tragi-comic tone of The Graduate, or even RushmoreLady Bird does, and then some. It’s a celebration of the types of modest successes that define many of our lives. Gerwig understands what it means to struggle economically and academically in America, and how it is to be the private school kid who lives on the wrong side of the tracks. As the film nears its end, Gerwig captures, with ferocious insight, the fear and freedom that come from leaving home. But she also captures the emotional ferocity of a parent watching this unfold. Quite simply, Lady Bird is a film to fall in love with.

  1. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is the elegant love story he was born to make. Obviously, it is his best film since Pan’s Labyrinth, but one can go further; Shape is his finest effort to date. Consider the swoon-worthy look of it all, from the design of the amphibious creature to the sight of a grinning Sally Hawkins on her nightly bus journey. Consider, too, the performances of Hawkins, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, and Michael Stuhlbarg. On paper, the plot — mute custodian falls for the aforementioned imprisoned creature during the Cold War — sounds stale, and B-movie-ish. In del Toro’s hands, it is magical. Moment to moment, scene for scene, The Shape of Water is a glorious creation. Here is a film that reminds us why we so adore cinema in the first place. In all respects, it is a remarkable achievement.

 

 

Review: James Franco’s ‘Disaster Artist’ is uproarious and moving

My last Buffalo News movie review for the foreseeable future (long story) was a good one: “The Disaster Artist.” I gave it four stars.

The most unexpectedly poignant scene of 2017 comes near the end of “The Disaster Artist,” an uproarious and genuinely insightful creation. It is the premiere night for “The Room,” a film written, produced, directed by and starring a man of mystery named Tommy Wiseau.

If you’ve seen “The Room,” or know the story of the film and Wiseau, you can guess what happened the night of the premiere: laughter. However, “The Room,” is not a comedy. It is, instead, a dark, “emotional” story of betrayal.

It is also a god-awful effort considered by many to be the worst film ever made. And the status of “The Room” became abundantly clear just minutes into that first screening.

The assembled audience — many of whom worked on the film, either in front of or behind the camera — was in hysterics. Meanwhile, Wiseau, played here by James Franco, wept. His film was a joke, and it always would be.

This scene comes after we’ve seen Wiseau meet a fellow actor named Greg Sestero (played by Dave Franco), attempt to make it in Hollywood, fall repeatedly on his face, and, finally, develop and shoot “The Room.” We know he has no dramatic film-making ability, and little grasp of reality.

But thanks to James Franco – who also produced and directed the film – we care about Wiseau. His pain is hilarious and affecting. Yes, it can be both. Similarly, “The Room” is both a nightmare and a joy — a bad, bad film that has filled audiences around with world with real happiness.

Real happiness also comes from watching “The Disaster Artist,” a film that marks Franco’s greatest achievement. He is so intent on doing everything — writing, hosting awards shows, acting on soap operas — that his talent is often overlooked.

The script for “Disaster” by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (based on “Room” co-star Sestero’s book) presents a Wiseau with the absurdity of his public image and an innate likability. The script and the performance make everything about him – from his strange, New Orleans accent to his abundant reserves of cash – endearing.

So, too, is the first chunk of the film, in which Wiseau and Sestero move to Los Angeles to pursue acting careers. Dave Franco nicely acquits himself opposite his brother, making Sestero a relatable audience stand-in.

“Disaster” wisely avoids puncturing the Wiseau myths — no one onscreen learns where he’s from, how he makes his money, or how old he is, and neither does the audience.

And it surrounds him with characters who, like Sestero, are likable non-caricatures including Seth Rogen as the film’s script supervisor; Ari Gaynor, Jacki Weaver, and Josh Hutcherson as “Room” co-stars; and Paul Scheer as the film’s director of photography. These actors make the scenes set around the making of Wiseau’s self-funded epic hysterical.

But it is James Franco who is most memorable. At times unrecognizable, he has crafted a hero for the ages — albeit, a hero who looks like a villain. It’s not hard to see what appealed to him about the story. Similar to Franco, Wiseau was and is a figure often criticized as dangerously self-deluded. Yet he persevered, stayed true to his vision, and triumphed. With “The Disaster Artist,” so does Franco.

Like Tim Burton’s classic “Ed Wood,” “The Disaster Artist” is a testament to the communal joy of movie-making. But more than that, it’s an unforgettable appreciation of the pleasures of movie-watching.

Female directors and performers rule at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival (from Buffalo Spree)

Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone at TIFF.
STONE IMAGE BY ALBERTO E. RODRIGUEZ, COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES; LAWRENCE PHOTO BY GEORGE PIMENTEL.

With this, my TIFF17 feature from the November issue of Buffalo Spree, my festival coverage comes to a close …

While movies screened, celebs walked red carpets, and attendees waited in epic lines at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, another incredible thing was happening. One-third of the films selected for TIFF17 were directed by women, and that is nothing short of remarkable. Consider the recent track record of festivals like Cannes and Venice. Look at Hollywood’s awful track record of funding and producing films by female filmmakers. And look also at the quality of the films by women at TIFF this year.

At the top of the list was Lady Bird, a warm, riotous, relentlessly entertaining coming-of-age drama written and directed by Frances Ha star Greta Gerwig. The story of a whip-smart Sacramento high schooler’s final year before college is simply glorious. Saoirse Ronan gives the best performance of an already impressive young career, and Gerwig nails what might be the finest film of its type since The Graduate. Another female director making a splash at TIFF was Barbara Albert, the Austrian filmmaker behind the exquisite period drama Mademoiselle Paradis. The true story of blind pianist Maria Theresia von Paradis was one of the boldest and strongest selections in TIFF’s Platform program.

Other noteworthy efforts from female directors were Mudbound, Dee Rees’s 1940s-set story of racial tension in the South; the Emma Stone-starring Battle of the Sexes, from Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton; and Novitiate, Meggie Betts’s somber drama about aspiring nuns in the 1960s. And three of cinema’s most exciting actresses—Angelina Jolie, Brie Larson, and Melanie Laurent—brought unique new directorial efforts to TIFF17. (First They Killed My FatherUnicorn Store, and Plonger, respectively.)

Of course, not every effort from a female filmmaker earned raves. The response was very mixed for Lisa Langseth’s Euphoria, a dreary end-of-life drama starring (a very good) Alicia Vikander and Eva Green. Death row love story My Days of Mercy felt rote and unmemorable, but featured winning performances from Ellen Page and Kata Mara. And Mary Shelley, director Haifaa Al Mansour’s follow-up to Wadjda, was mostly a miss. It featured Elle Fanning as the Frankenstein author. Yet, whatever the quality of audience response to the films mentioned here, the diversity of subject matter is admirable.

Astounding performances from women, too, were plentiful at TIFF this year. In addition to the actors already mentioned, there was Frances McDormand as a grieving mother out for justice in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; impressive teenage actress Fantine Harduin in Michael Haneke’s darkly hilarious Happy End; a world-conquering Jessica Chastain in Aaron Sorkin’s slick Molly’s Game; Jennifer Lawrence in Darren Aronofsky’s WTF horror thriller, Mother!; and Sally Hawkins as a woman in love with an amphibious creature in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water.

Along with Lady Bird, the greatest film at TIFF17 was The Florida Project, Sean Baker’s exhilarating follow-up to Tangerine. The story of a mother and daughter living at a rundown motel outside of Walt Disney World in Orlando is joyous, sad, and utterly insightful. Young star Brooklynn Prince gives one of the most natural performances I’ve seen from a child, and the great Willem Dafoe has never been better. It’s a rare kind-hearted role for the Last Temptation of Christ actor.

There were nice supporting performances from the likes of Carmen Ejogo (in the offbeat, Denzel Washington-starring legal drama Roman J. Israel, Esq.); Nicole Kidman (the terrifying Killing of a Sacred Deer, from The Lobster’s Yorgos Lanthimos); Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James (in the so-so, Gary Oldman-dominated Winston Churchill drama Darkest Hour); Amira Casar and Esther Garrel (two standouts in the gloriously entertaining, Oscar-caliber drama Call Me By Your Name, starring Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, and Michael Stuhlbarg); and, most notably, Hong Chau, as an activist-turned-house cleaner in the strange Matt Damon sci-fi satire, Downsizing.

It was undeniably a great year for TIFF, one of the best in my eleven years of attendance. There were the usual difficulties, specifically a seeming inability to get people into their seats at the proper time. Crowds were bigger than ever before, so you may want to book a hotel for next year right now. (Check the Tourism Toronto’s website, seetorontonow.com, for helpful tips.) There were high-profile disappointments, like George Clooney’s awful Suburbicon. But any year that includes two films as unique, as memorable, and as soul-enhancing as Lady Bird and The Florida Project must be considered a very good one.

Each screening, whether press and industry or public, included a brief remembrance of TIFF founder Bill Marshall, who passed away in January. I think the man who helped make Toronto a can’t-miss destination on the autumn cinephile calendar would have been thrilled to see the smiles as audiences left Lady Bird. That film, more than any other, was a reminder that female directors and actors are changing cinema. Bravo to the Toronto International Film Festival for recognizing this. Let’s hope for even more at TIFF18.

 

Review: Marvel’s ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ is a riotously entertaining romp

I reviewed “Thor: Ragnarok” for the Buffalo News. Goldblum!

The presence of Jeff Goldblum in “Thor: Ragnarok” is a statement. It tells us that this, the third feature centered around Asgard’s God of Lightning, will not be Marvel-by-numbers. How could it, when the iconic, oddball-ish, delightfully sputtering star of “The Fly” and “Jurassic Park” is one of your main villains?

Casting Goldblum says, “We’re not taking ourselves too seriously. We understand that this is a film about a Norse god wielding a mighty hammer. So let’s enjoy it.”

That’s a wise move. More “Fifth Element” than “Avengers,” more John Carpenter than Jon Favreau, “Thor: Ragnarok” is an often riotously entertaining interplanetary romp.

Yet, like nearly every Marvel effort to date, it is riddled with flaws. It is way overlong, and features a meandering, difficult-to-follow storyline. (I’m still not sure what Ragnarok actually is.) Audiences will be having so much fun, however, that they are unlikely to care.

Much of the credit for the film’s successes goes to filmmaker Taika Waititi, the New Zealander chosen as the director of the follow-up to “Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World.” His last two directorial efforts, cult classic vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows” and 2016 adventure “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” were offbeat treats. Neither would have made Waititi an obvious choice for “Ragnarok,” but he was an inspired choice. He nails the film’s devil-may-care tone.

Waititi also brought together a wonderful cast. Chris Hemsworth returns as the mighty Thor, and the reliably charming actor is having a blast. Also back are Tom Hiddleston as Thor’s sneering brother, Loki; Anthony Hopkins as their father, King Odin; and an underused Idris Elba as their Asgardian ally, Heimdall.

It’s the new names that enchant: the aforementioned Goldblum; Cate Blanchett as the “goddess of death,” Hela; Tessa Thompson as “Scrapper 142,” a booze-guzzling Asgardian in hiding; and Mark Ruffalo as Thor’s fellow Avenger, Hulk (a.k.a., Bruce Banner).

The less time spent discussing the plot, the better. But here goes: A couple of years after the events of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Thor returns home to Asgard. He finds his thought-to-be-deceased brother alive and well, but their father has left the planet.

Odin is, in fact, ready to pass on. Doing so ushers in the arrival of his firstborn child, the evil, all-conquering Hela. She quickly forces Thor and Loki to the planet Sakar, and arrives in Asgard to claim her throne.

Sakar is ruled by the powerful Grandmaster (Goldblum), who cannot wait to put Thor into gladiatorial battle against … an old friend who is green, large and angry. Thor, Loki, Hulk, and a new ally, “Scrapper 142,” must find a way off the planet, return to Asgard, and discover a way to defeat Hela.

There are ample joys along the way, many of them occurring on Sakar. Hemsworth displays the comic timing he used to great effect in 2016’s “Ghostbusters,” as well as noteworthy chemistry with Hiddleston, Thompson, and Ruffalo. Meanwhile, Blanchett chews scenery with ease.

As “Thor: Ragnarok” progresses, the sense of urgency severely wanes. The entire affair begins to feel like a long, rather random diversion. But Waititi saves the day, repeatedly, with great humor and eye-popping action sequences, including two set to Led Zeppelin’s wildly appropriate “Immigrant Song.”

How does “Ragnarok” fit into the extended Marvel universe? Who cares? After all, “Thor: Ragnarok” is the first Marvel film that seems designed to be fun, above all else. It doesn’t always work, but bravo to all involved for going full-Goldblum, and never looking back.

Coming Attractions: October is film festival time in Buffalo (from Buffalo Spree)

The BIFF crowd gathers outside the North Park Theatre before the premiere of Trew Calling in 2016
BIFF PHOTO BY SUMMER OLIVER

I’m getting to this one a little late … but there’s still time for many of these screenings. Here’s my October 2017 Coming Attractions column from Buffalo Spree.

Film festivals are plentiful in Western New York, but two of the best happen in October. Check out these and more here in this month’s screenings rundown.

riverrun Global Film Series: Cuban films and filmmakers are the focus of the second installment of riverrun, a unique series that aims to “create a dialogue between the local community and institutions of higher education in Buffalo through a selection of films that provide a better understanding of our present existence in the globalized networked world.” William & Mary professor Ann Marie Stock is keynote speaker during the festival’s first night, October 12. The evening includes a screening of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment, a 1968 feature recently restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation. October 13 features films by and about women, a poetry reading, and Cuban music and dance. And October 14 looks at old and new Cuba via films about the environment (the “nuclear narrative” of 2015’s The Project of the Century) and Cuba’s AIDS crisis (2016’s The Companion). There is much more planned; for a complete rundown of films, speakers, and events, visit globalfilmseries.wordpress.com. (October 12-14 at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave.; globalfilmseries.wordpress.com)

Buffalo International Film Festival: In the last few years, BIFF has emerged as Western New York’s most exciting, best-curated film festival. Any fest that would open with a screening of Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, as BIFF16 did, is hard to top. In 2017, BIFF will again be held entirely within the City of Buffalo, at the North Park Theatre, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, Squeaky Wheel Film and Media Art Center, and additional venues still to be announced. Be sure to peruse titles and find times and locations at buffalointernationalfilmfestival.com. One highlight to make special note of is a screening of Marshall, the Thurgood Marshall biopic shot in Buffalo. It screens at 7 p.m. on October 7 at the North Park Theatre. Another is a screening of El Topo director Alexander Jodorowsky’s latest, Endless Poetry. It screens at 5:30 p.m. on October 7 at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. (October 6 to 9; buffalointernationalfilmfestival.com)

Rocky Horror Picture Show Party at the Riviera Theatre: A pre-Halloween screening of cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a tradition at North Tonawanda’s Riviera Theatre. The party includes a pre-show at 10 p.m., a costume contest, and several other events allowing attendees to do the time warp. (9:30 p.m. doors at the Riviera Theatre and Performing Arts Center, 67 Webster St., N. Tonawanda; rivieratheatre.org)

Thursday Night Terrors—The Craft, Halloween III, and Creepshow: There’s something for just about every horror fan this October thanks to Thursday Night Terrors. First is a surprising (and very cool) selection, the 1996 teenage witchcraft favorite The Craft. It’s scheduled for October 12, and should draw a mix of 1990s enthusiasts and newbies. Meanwhile, October 26 offers a double feature: Halloween III: Season of the Witch and Creepshow. Michael Myers and George Romero, six days before Halloween? Bloody perfect. (The Craft: 7:30 p.m. on October 12; Halloween III and Creepshow: 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., respectively, on October 26; at the Dipson Amherst Theatre, 3500 Main St.; facebook.com/thursdaynightterrors)

Buffalo Film Seminars: The heavy hitters are coming out for the BFS this month. First up is Robert Altman’s still-innovative M*A*S*H on October 3. Next, on October 10, is Alan J. Pakula’s timely (ahem) Watergate classic All the President’s Men. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1983 drama Nostalghia screens on October 24, followed by Wim Wenders’s soaring Wings of Desire on October 24. And on October 31, BFS presents Mike Nichols’s Postcards from the Edge. The latter was written by the late Carrie Fisher, and based on her own novel. It’s a gem, and Meryl Streep and Shirley Maclaine have rarely been better. (7 p.m. on October 3, 10, 17, 24, and 31 at the Dipson Amherst Theatre, 3500 Main St.; csac.buffalo.edu/bfs.html)

Noir EssentialsIn a Lonely Place: The new film noir series at the Dipson Eastern Hills offers another great: Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place. There’s an argument to be made that Humphrey Bogart gives his best performance, as a screenwriter accused of murder. (7:30 p.m. on October 18 at the Dipson Eastern Hills Cinema, 4545 Transit Rd., Williamsville; dipsontheatres.com)

Roycroft Film Society—Autism in AmericaMany critics consider this 2015 documentary to be the strongest film yet about autism. It’s another unique Roycroft pick. (4 p.m. on October 8 at Parkdale Elementary School, 141 Girard Ave., East Aurora; roycroftcampuscorp.com)

TCM Big Screen Classics—The Princess BrideFans of Rob Reiner’s adventure-filled love story don’t just like it. They love it. I suspect many of them will be in attendance to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the film, which stars Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Christopher Guest, and, of course, Andre the Giant. (2 and 7 p.m. on October 15 and 18 at the Regal Elmwood Center, 2001 Elmwood Ave., and Regal Transit Center, 6707 Transit Rd., Williamsville; fathomevents.com)

GKIDS Presents Studio Ghibli Fest 2017—Spirited AwayThis ongoing Fathom Events series has now arrived at one of Hayao Miyazaki’s most acclaimed and important films. Spirited Away is a whimsical delight that still enchants viewers of any age. (Dubbed version: 12:55 p.m. on October 29; subtitled version: 7 p.m. on October 30; at the Regal Elmwood Center, 2001 Elmwood Ave., and Regal Transit Center, 6707 Transit Rd., Williamsville;fathomevents.com)

Free films courtesy of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library: The Town of Collins Public Library has scheduled a free screening of Tyler Perry’s Boo! A Madea Halloween on October 6, while the Central Library’s free family film screening is again set for the first Saturday of the month. (1 p.m. on October 6 at the Town of Collins Public Library, 2341 Main St., Collins; and 1 p.m. on October 7 at the Central Branch, 1 Lafayette Square;buffalolib.org)

Norma and The Magic Flute at the Fredonia Opera House: The latest “Live at the Met” broadcast at the Opera House is a new production of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma on October 7, while Julie Taymor’s production of Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute) screens on October 14. (Norma: 1 p.m. on October 7; The Magic Flute: 1 p.m. on October 14; at the Fredonia Opera House, 9 Church St., Fredonia; fredopera.org)

TCM Presents The Natural at the North Park: It’s a month of unique and exciting film screenings, but the October 21 presentation of The Natural at the North Park Theatre might top the list. Presented by Turner Classic Movies, this special “TCM Backlot” screening  of the Buffalo-shot baseball favorite will be hosted by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz and feature a live appearance from the film’s director, Barry Levinson. Tickets are required for this free screening, but prepare to arrive early; a ticket does not guarantee a seat. (7 p.m. on October 21 at the North Park Theatre, 1428 Hertel Ave.; northparktheatre.org)

Beloved and Cameraperson, presented by Cultivate Cinema Circle: One of the late Jonathan Demme’s most unjustly ignored films is Beloved, the 1998 Toni Morrison adaptation starring Oprah Winfrey. On October 24, Cultivate Cinema Circle presents the film in conjunction with Morrison’s Babel series visit to Buffalo on November 9. Also this month, CCC presents a screening of Kirsten Johnson’s stunning documentary, Cameraperson(Cameraperson: 7 p.m. on October 4 at Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Arts Center, 617 Main St.; Beloved: 7:30 p.m. on October 24 at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, 341 Delaware Ave.;cultivatecinemacircle.com)

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Nosferatu at the North Park: This double feature of silent horror classics on October 11 will feature live musical accompaniment from Austin band the Invincible Czars. (Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde: 7 p.m.; Nosferatu: 9:30 p.m.; both at the North Park Theatre, 1428 Hertel Ave.; northparktheatre.org)

Old Chestnut Film Series: China Seas: The long-running classic film series presents a season of Clark Gable and Greta Garbo. First up is Gable, in the 1935 drama China Seas(7:30 p.m. on October 13 in the Community Room of the Phillip Sheridan School, 3200 Elmwood Ave., Kenmore; oldchestnut.com)

October at the Screening Room: It is possible that this month is one of the busiest in the history of Amherst’s Screening Room Cinema. There are documentaries, like Swim Team, which opens September 29 and also screens on September 30, October 1, and October 3. There are classics, like John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, which screens on October 7, 8 and 10. (The October 7 screening will also feature a live performance titled The Movin’ Dress: A Dust Bowl Story.) There’s a local fare from Buffalo State College, at the Studio 716 Film Festival on October 6. And there is a lengthy list of scary (and scary-funny) favorites, as the Halloween Horrorfest features films like Carnival of SoulsNight of the Living Dead, Plan 9 From Outer Space, and Young Frankenstein. Remember to check screeningroom.net for times and a full schedule of films and events. (The Screening Room, 880 Alberta Dr., Amherst; screeningroom.net)

Previews, reviews, rundowns and more: My TIFF17 coverage

The 2017 Toronto International Film Festival feels like it happened three months ago. In actuality, it was just a few weeks ago. My time spent at the festival is tightly-packed, however, and that leads to a massive post-TIFF hangover. Hence, the feeling that it was far longer ago than it actually was.

More TIFF writing from me is coming soon, including a feature in the November issue of Buffalo Spree. But here is the majority of my festival coverage.

 

From Buffalo Spree magazine:

Make 2017 the year you finally hit the Toronto International Film Festival

 

From BuffaloSpree.com:

Ten to remember from TIFF17

7 days until TIFF17: The fest adds Gaga, Dunkirk, and Denzel

TIFF 2017 Update: Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan, and Mélanie Laurent lead some under-the-radar selections

Seven weeks to go: The TIFF countdown is on

 

From Forever Young:

Must-See Films of Fall 2017: The Toronto International Film Festival

 

From The Playlist:

Barbara Albert’s ‘Mademoiselle Paradis’ Is A Haunting Period Tale [TIFF Review]

‘Porcupine Lake’: A Worthy, Wise Tale Of Teenage Longing [TIFF Review]

 

From The Film Stage:

TIFF Review: ‘Mary Shelley’ Doesn’t Breath Life into the ‘Frankenstein’ Author’s Story

TIFF Review: ‘Roman J. Israel, Esq.’ Defies Expectations at Every Turn

TIFF Review: ‘Molly’s Game’ is Undeniably Enjoyable and Hugely Forgettable        

TIFF Review: ‘Lady Bird’ is Wise, Funny, Remarkably Assured, and One of the Year’s Great Joys     

TIFF Review: ‘Euphoria’ Provides a Complex Role for Alicia Vikander Amidst Deflating Drama

The road to TIFF17: Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan, and Mélanie Laurent lead some under-the-radar selections

Unicorn Store, starring and directed by Brie Larson, makes its world premiere at TIFF17.
PHOTO COURTESY OF TIFF

As the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival draws closer, it’s time to look at some less high-profile selections. I took a closer look at ten of these for BuffaloSpree.com.

Three weeks from now, the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival will be in full swing. If you love cinema, that’s thrilling news. TIFF, of course, is a giant, a festival that (along with festivals in Venice and Telluride) helps set the direction for the rest of the cinematic year thanks to biggies like Suburbicon and Molly’s Game. However, part of the fun is discovering small-scale gems. Here are ten under-the-radar films to consider seeing at TIFF17, or to make note of for future viewing.

 

Unicorn Store: The ascent of the utterly delightful Brie Larson has been a joy to behold. Key to her rise was the reception that greeted Room at the 2015 festival, and months later she was Larson was clutching an Oscar. Now, the star of The Glass Castle and Kong: Skull Island makes her directorial debut. Larson plays a young artist in this whimsical film co-starring Samuel L. Jackson.

On Chesil Beach: A highlight of the 2015 festival was the performance of Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn. The actress returns in this adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 60s-set novella that costars young actor Billy Howle.

Plonger: French actress Mélanie Laurent has given wondrous performances for years now, in films like Inglourious Basterds and Beginners. But her work behind the camera has been even more impressive. She follows up 2014’s Breathe with this drama about a photographer who takes up deep-sea diving.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood: One of the spiciest Hollywood tell-alls in recent memory was Scotty Bowers’s memoir of his years as a pimp (and sometimes more) to the stars. Director Matt Tyrnauer’s long-awaited documentary adaptation should be fascinating.

Cocaine Prison: Another noteworthy TIFF documentary, Cocaine Prison is a sure-to-be involving look at the international drug trade focusing on a drug mule, his sister, and a cocaine worker.

My Days of Mercy: Can a TIFF Gala Presentation qualify as “under the radar”? Perhaps, when the film in question is a death row drama. Ellen Page and Kate Mara star in the latest from Israeli director Tali Shalom-Ezer.

Kodachrome: Jason Sudeikis and Ed Harris play father and son in a road movie that also stars Elizabeth Olsen. Little is known about this one, but the IMDB description intrigues: “Set during the final days of the admired photo development system known as Kodachrome, a father and son hit the road in order to reach the Kansas photo lab before it closes its doors for good.”

Porcupine Lake: This intimate coming-of-age drama is a quieter cousin of TIFF15 standout Sleeping Giant. Both are Canadian dramas about aimless summers that forever change the lives of the teens involved. Ingrid Veninger directs.

The Crescent: TIFF’s Midnight Madness program can always be counted on for some off-kilter treats. Hopefully, this horror film set at a remote coastal estate will be another killer Madness entry.

Miami: The Finnish estranged sister drama Miami may turn out to be one of the festival’s word of mouth hits, and stars Krista and Sonja Kuittinen could be two of TIFF17’s breakouts.

The TIFF17 countdown is on (for BuffaloSpree.com)

Yes, TIFF17 is fast approaching … I pondered the first batch of announcements for BuffaloSpree.com.

A tell-tale sign that summer is preparing for closure is the first batch of Toronto International Film Festival (running from September 7 to 17) announcements. Those came on July 25, as head honchos Piers Handling and Cameron Bailey ran through a group of TIFF17 gala and special presentation selections. It was a strong group, to be sure, and featured many titles announced days later for the Venice Film Festival.

But questions still remain. Such as…

What’s going to be the opening night film? This was indeed a surprise, as the opening night selection is always newsworthy. Some have been good (Dead Ringers, The Sweet Hereafter), some have been meh (Demolition, The Judge), some have been bad (The Fifth Estate), and some have been crimes against humanity (Score! The Hockey Musical). The assembled press at the July 25 press conference certainly seemed surprised. [UPDATE: It’s tennis drama Borg/McEnroe.]

Does this mean the opening night film will be Canadian? Most likely. Bailey said the announcement would come in mid-August, and the Canadian press conference is set for August 9. That could mean Montreal native Xavier Dolan’s The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. Its starry cast — Jessica Chastain, Kit Harrington, Natalie Portman — seems perfect for an opener.

Is there ANY chance Blade Runner 2049 still makes the lineup? Probably not. For weeks, there had been (possibly unfounded) Twitter buzz that the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner could be the festival opener. After all, director Denis Villeneuve is Canadian and a TIFF veteran. (Last year he came with the well-received Arrival.) Star Ryan Gosling is Canadian and a TIFF veteran. (Last year he came with the super-duper-well-received La La Land.) Plus, the timing seemed to make sense; the film opens on October 4. But it wasn’t announced for TIFF or Venice. The New York Film Festival is possible, but perhaps Warner Bros. decided to keep this one secret until right before its release date.

Is there a La La Land or Moonlight in the mix? Really, that question is asking if there is a soon-to-be cross-cultural smash, a critical success that also enchants audiences worldwide. There’s no way of knowing, of course. But a few titles that could fit the bill are Battle of the Sexes, about the legendary tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King; Andy Serkis’s Breathe, about a couple facing a devastating disease; and Stronger, in which Jake Gyllenhaal plays Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman.

Is it worth seeing Darren Aronofsky’s mother! when the film is set to open just days later? Maybe! Aronofsky’s annoyingly titled Jennifer Lawrence-starrer is one of the most mysterious majors debuting at the fall festivals. But it opens on September 15 … before the end of TIFF. Personally, I’m not sure I can pass up the chance to see mother! a few days early … even if it’s a waste of TIFF time.

Will there be a dry eye in the Lightbox at the end of Tragically Hip documentary Long Time Running? That’s unlikely. The gala debut of the film chronicling the Hip’s farewell 2016 tour will be one the festival’s hottest tickets.

Answers to these questions will arrive very soon. Watch buffalospree.com for more updates, and follow me on Twitter at @FilmSwoon.com.

 

Still from Long Time Running courtesy of TIFF.