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.

You Should Be Watching: ‘Okja’ (for The Buffalo News)

For my latest Buffalo News “You should be watching” column,” I looked at “Okja.” This Netflix release is one of 2017’s best films.

Head over to Netflix where you’ll find the listing for “Okja,” a new Netflix original film. Pictured is the title creature, a large, cuddly animal resembling a cross between a walrus, a hippo and an obese dog. Make no mistake, though, Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja” is not a film for children. Instead it’s a brilliant, harsh, emotionally overwhelming story of corporate greed, animal abuse, and, to a lesser extent, the bonds of friendship. It’s one of the finest films of 2017.

Title: “Okja”

Year it debuted: 2017

Where it can be seen: Netflix

Who’s in it: Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Lily Collins

Running time: 120 minutes

Brief plot description: The powerful Mirando Corporation led by CEO Nancy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) announces a worldwide contest in which hand-picked farmers will raise a newly bred superpig. One of these farmers lives in South Korea with his granddaughter, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun). She has formed a special bond with their superpig, Okja. However, it is now time for Mirando and TV zoologist Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal) to bring the animal to New York City. With the help of the animal rights group Animal Liberation Front (ALF), Mija attempts to save Okja from a grim fate.

Why it’s worth watching: “Okja” is an important release for Netflix. It is directed by a major-league filmmaker, the man behind cult classics “The Host” and “Snowpiercer.” It features a heavyweight cast. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. And finally, “Okja” is the first Netflix narrative feature that could garner some Oscar interest, particularly for its effects work. The film is a deliriously inventive swing for the fences that uses CGI to bring to life a believable, lovable beast.

While the friendship angle is moving, “Okja” is even more effective as a sharp critique of multinational big-business cruelty. There are a number of brutal, difficult-to-watch moments, mainly a scene in which a wild and wacky Gyllenhaal tortures Okja. At times, the actor seems to be channeling Charles Nelson Reilly – and that’s as strange as it sounds. While certainly over the top, it works, and so do the stunning action set pieces. One, an attempted rescue of Okja by ALF leaders (including Paul Dano and Lily Collins), ranks among Bong Joon-ho’s most memorable. “Okja” might be his most original film. Plus, it’s a Netflix must-watch. But be prepared for some heartbreaking moments. And keep the kiddos away.

June Coming Attractions: Summer series begin (from Buffalo Spree)

Well, I was negligent in posting my June Buffalo Spree “Coming Attractions” column until today … the last day of June. But hey, you’ve still got tonight!

June is when the WNY screening world gets very busy—both indoors and outdoors. So enjoy this roundup of films, and remember to watch for outdoor film series calendars in Spree’s July and August issues.

Niagara and Spaceballs at the Screening Room: One of the films featured in Spree’s April 2015 “film issue” was 1953’s Niagara, the Marilyn Monroe vehicle that was shot entirely in Niagara Falls, Ontario. It’s a strange, fascinating melodrama, especially for Western New Yorkers. This combination of the Falls and Marilyn still intrigues, and this makes the film a perennial pick at Amherst’s Screening Room. Niagara, co-starring Joseph Cotten, screens at 7:30 p.m. on June 1 and 2. Note that June 1 would’ve been Monroe’s ninety-first birthday. Also on tap in June is Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs. The comic master’s Star Wars parody is not as revered as his Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, but it’s still hugely enjoyable, and has a special place in the hearts of 1980s kids. It screens on June 23, 24, and 29; the latter screening will also feature trivia. (Niagara: 7:30 p.m. on June 1 and 2; Spaceballs: 7:30 p.m. on June 23 and 24, 7 p.m. on June 29; at the Screening Room, 880 Alberta Dr., Amherst;screeningroom.net)

Fredonia Opera House—Michelangelo: Love and Death and America Rising: The Arts of the Gilded AgeOn June 15, the Opera House presents Michelangelo: Love and Death, a high-definition production exploring the life and work of the Renaissance master. Then, on June 29, filmmaker Michael Maglaras will discuss and present America Rising: The Arts of the Gilded Age. His film takes a close look at the American art, music, and literature created between Lincoln’s death in 1865 and Mark Twain’s death in 1910.  (Michelangelo: 7:30 p.m. on June 15; America Rising: 7:30 p.m. on June 29; both at the Fredonia Opera House, 9 Church St., Fredonia; fredopera.org)

Cultivate Cinema Circle—American Promise: Since its start in 2015, CCC has provided Buffalonians with the opportunity to see insightful, groundbreaking documentaries like The Look of Science and Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World. This month, Cultivate offers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson’s acclaimed 2013 documentary American Promise. Originally airing as part of the award-winning PBS series POV and shot over the course of twelve years, the film sharing the experiences of two African-Americans attending a historically white Manhattan private school. (7 p.m. on June 28 at Burning Books, 420 Connecticut St.; cultivatecinemacircle.com)

TCM Big Screen Classics—The Godfather and Some Like It HotThere’s never a bad time to see The Godfatheron the big screen, but 2017 is especially noteworthy. It’s been forty-five years since Francis Ford Coppola’s epic story of the Corleone crime family was released, and the film’s hold on pop culture remains strong. Meanwhile, the second TCM film for the month is Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. Yes, the comedy starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe is still uproarious. (The Godfather: 2 and 7 p.m. on June 4 and 7; Some Like It Hot: 2 and 7 p.m. on June 11 and 14; both at the Regal Elmwood Center, 2001 Elmwood Ave., and Regal Transit Center, 6707 Transit Rd., Williamsville; fathomevents.com)

Roycroft Film Society—Wild Tales: The list of nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the eighty-seventh Academy Awards (held on February 22, 2015) is pretty staggering: Poland’s Ida (the deserving winner), Russia’s Leviathan, Estonia’s Tangerines, Mauritania’s Timbuktu, and Argentina’s Wild Tales. The most purely enjoyable film on the list is Wild Tales, and it’s June’s Roycroft Film Society selection. The pitch-black but very funny anthology film from writer-director Damián Szifron was produced by the great Pedro Almodovar. (4 p.m. on June 11 at Parkdale Elementary School, 141 Girard Ave., East Aurora; roycroftcampuscorp.com)

Fathom Events—RiffTrax Live and Resident EvilIn addition to The Godfather and Some Like It Hot, the Fathom Events June lineup features RiffTrax Live: Summer Shorts Beach Party:, in which comedians goof on some old-school educational shorts, and video game adaptation Resident EvilVendetta. The latter is the latest in a series of animated efforts based on the hit horror games, all unrelated to the long-running live action series. (RiffTrax Live: Summer Shorts Beach Party: times TBA on June 15 and 20; Resident Evil: Vendetta: 7 and 10 p.m. on June 19; both at the Regal Elmwood Center, 2001 Elmwood Ave., and Regal Transit Center, 6707 Transit Rd., Williamsville;fathomevents.com)

Family-Friendly Film Series: As usual, the second Saturday of each month features a free family film at the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library Crane Branch; call 883-6651 with questions or for more information about the movie selections. (11 a.m. on June 10 at the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library Crane Branch, 633 Elmwood Ave.; buffalolib.org)

Toronto LGBT Film Festival: The twenty-seventh annual festival started on May 25 and runs through June 4. (Check insideout.ca/initiatives/Toronto lineup, schedules, and locations)

Lawrence of Arabia at the Dryden Theatre: The George Eastman Museum’s Dryden Theatre screens David Lean’s widescreen epic twice, on June 1 and 3. It’s one of several noteworthy screenings at the Dryden in June; check eastman.org for the full list. (7:30 p.m. on June 1 and 3 at the Dryden Theatre, 900 East Ave., Rochester;eastman.org)

“Books on Film” at TIFF Bell Lightbox: In June, this insightful series features director Mira Nair, who will discuss her sadly underseen chess drama Queen of Katwe, and Brooklyn author Colm Toibin, who talks about the film based on his story of a young Irish immigrant in the 1950s. (Katwe: 7 p.m. on June 5; Brooklyn: 7 p.m. on June 19; both at TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King St. W., Toronto; tiff.net)

La Cenerentola Live at the Dipson Amherst: This month’s simulcast is the first opera staged by Guillaume Gallienne. (2 p.m. on June 26 at the Dipson Amherst Theatre, 3500 Main. St.; dipsontheatres.com)

Flicks On Old Falls Free Outdoor Movie Series: The Secret Life of PetsThe annual free summer movie series on Old Falls Street in Niagara Falls kicks off with one of last summer’s animated hits. The series runs on Thursdays through August 31. Bring blankets; Adirondack chairs are also available. (Movie at 9 p.m.; pre-show begins at 7:30 p.m.; Old Falls St., Niagara Falls; fallsstreet.com)

Cultivate Cinema Circle: JerichowCCC’s Christian Petzold series concludes with the Phoenix director’s 2008 entry, a film loosely inspired by The Postman Always Rings Twice. (7 p.m. on June 7 at Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Art Center, 617 Main St.; cultivatecinemacircle.com)

Fathom Events: My Neighbor TotoroAnimator Hayao Miyazaki’s Totoro is one of his sweetest, finest films. It screens as part of Fathom’s Studio Ghibli Fest. (dubbed version: 12:55 p.m. on June 25; subtitled version: 7 p.m. on June 26; at the Regal Elmwood Center, 2001 Elmwood Ave., and Regal Transit Center, 6707 Transit Rd., Williamsville;fathomevents.com)

5-25-77 and Raising Arizona at the Screening Room: In addition to the Screening Room showings mentioned above, the theater has a few other treats planned for June. 5-25-77 is a 1970s-set coming-of-age entry about a teenager excitedly waiting for the premiere of a little sci-fi flick called Star Wars. Meanwhile, the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona remains one of the duo’s funniest creations. It begins its Screening Room run on June 30; watch screeningroom.net for additional showings. (5-25-77: 9:30 p.m. on June 2; Raising Arizona: 7:30 p.m. on June 30; at the Screening Room, 880 Alberta Dr., Amherst; screeningroom.net)

Concert and Silent Film at the Riviera Theatre: Donna Parker plays the Mighty WurliTzer as Laurel and Hardy’s silent film Brats unspools onscreen. (7:30 p.m. on June 7 at the Riviera Theatre and Performing Arts Center, 67 Webster St., N. Tonawanda; rivieratheatre.org)

Scanners and Olivier Assayas at TIFF Bell Lightbox: The “Books on Film” series mentioned above is a TIFF summer highlight, but it’s one of many unique screenings at the Toronto jewel. David Cronenberg’s Scanners screens on June 17. Most thrilling? Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper director Olivier Assayas is the focus of a series titled Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas. It features his own works, as well as hand-picked favorites from other filmmakers. It all starts on June 22 with Robert Bresson’s 1977 drama The Devil Probably. For the full series schedule, visit tiff.net(Scanners: 9 p.m. on June 17; The Devil Probably: 9 p.m. on June 22; both at TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King St. W., Toronto; tiff.net

Transit Drive-In Retro Movie Tuesday: A retro double feature is held every Tuesday (except July 4) all summer long at the Transit Drive-In. The lineup includes The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire on June 6; Rocky IV and The Hunt for Red October on June 13; The Monster Squad and The Lost Boys on June 20; and The NeverEnding Story and Labyrinth on June 27. (First movie starts at 9:15 p.m. at Transit Drive In, 6655 S. Transit Rd, Lockport.;transitdrivein.com)