My TIFF review round-up (so far)

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I am back from the Toronto International Film Festival, and I’ll continue to be posting articles, reviews, links, and more in the days, weeks, and months to come. But here is a quick round-up of my published TIFF work so far:

I have some more work coming, and I posted plenty on Twitter and Facebook over the course of the weekend.

Photo from “Sarah Prefers to Run” courtesy of TIFF

TIFF Preview: Will “Joe” be a comeback for Nicolas Cage?

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One of late-summer’s most pleasant films is David Gordon Green’s “Prince Avalanche,” and the director brings a new film, “Joe,” to TIFF. It feels like this could be the role Nicolas Cage has been waiting for.

Nicolas Cage stars as a hard-living ex-con who becomes friend and protector for a hard-luck kid (Tye Sheridan; “The Tree of Life,” “Mud”), in this contemporary Southern gothic tale from acclaimed filmmaker David Gordon Green (“George Washington,” “All the Real Girls”).

The men who populate David Gordon Green’s latest film, “Joe,” have known prison, and sudden rage, and thrashings from their daddies. We see little of this in the film, but Green finds simple, graceful ways to show the marks left by a lifetime of violence. Like his earlier films “All the Real Girls” and “Undertow,” Joe crafts elevated drama from the raw material of America’s Southern poor.

Based on Larry Brown’s acclaimed novel, the film tells the story of a kind-hearted excon (Nicolas Cage), who oversees a group of Mississippi men who clear trees for a large lumber company. When Gary (Tye Sheridan), a determined fifteen-year-old, shows up looking for work, Joe is hesitant to turn him away. After taking him on as part of the crew, Joe soon becomes a father figure. It’s an easy role to fill, since Gary’s own father is a brutal alcoholic. In a desperate attempt to escape his troubled household, Gary runs away from his family, looking to Joe for refuge. But Joe is no simple Samaritan. Recently released from prison, and with his own history of erratic acts, he makes for an unpredictable protector. And yet the two see something in each other, some core of dignity that might survive their ragged lives.

As Joe, Cage delivers one of his best performances in a storied career. He is as compelling as he is in his most outrageous roles, but achieves the effect with far more restraint here. And, as Gary, Sheridan, who followed “The Tree of Life” with Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” and now this film, continues to prove himself one of America’s most subtle young actors.

Text by Cameron Bailey; photo courtesy of TIFF

TIFF Preview: Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange

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Cumberbatch as Assange? Sounds ideal. But Bill Condon makes me nervous after his awful “Twilight” films … In any event, “The Fifth Estate” is likely a fall film not to miss.

“Dreamgirls” director Bill Condon helms this absorbing dramatization of the rise and fall of Wikileaks and its fascinating founder Julian Assange. “The Fifth Estate” is a truly 21st-century saga of technology, politics and civic responsibility.

You don’t disclose three-quarters of a million classified documents without making a few enemies. So discovers WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Bill Condon’s “The Fifth Estate,” a mesmerizing, complex portrait of an embattled new-media luminary. “The Fifth Estate” details WikiLeaks’s rise to international notoriety and the subsequent souring of relations between Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch, also appearing at the Festival in “12 Years a Slave” and “August: OsageCounty”) and his most trusted lieutenant, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl, also at the Festival in Ron Howard’s “Rush”).

Drawing on Domscheit-Berg’s memoir, Inside WikiLeaks, as well as a 2011 exposé by British journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding, screenwriter Josh Singer chronicles the friendship that underpinned the whistleblower organization’s formative feats of information activism (targeting entities including Swiss private bank Julius Baer, the Church of Scientology, and the British National Party), and would end in acrimonious estrangement following WikiLeaks’s un-redacted publication of nearly 750,000 United States military logs and diplomatic cables — the largest leak of official secrets in American history.

As well as an engrossing investigative thriller, “The Fifth Estate” is a drama of Shakespearean dimensions, driven by a masterful performance from Cumberbatch. His Assange is a fiercely intelligent coil of contradictions, tyrannical in his advocacy for transparency, at once both hubristic and deeply insecure. Brühl, in turn, contributes an adroit portrayal of conflicted devotion, leading an exceptional supporting cast that also includes Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Mackie, Alicia Vikander, and David Thewlis.

Rounding out a remarkable package is Condon’s fleet, propulsive direction, which ensures “The Fifth Estate” is not only among the year’s timeliest films, but also its most entertaining.

Photo courtesy of TIFF

TIFF Preview: “Eleanor Rigby” is a unique, two-part relationship drama


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Here is one that could go either way: “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her” sounds as if it could be transcendent, or a disaster. I won’t get to find out, but I cannot wait to hear what others think.

James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain and Viola Davis star in this innovative two-part film that relates a love story from two different perspectives.

Every story has two sides. The unprecedented cinematic event “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her” sets out to prove just that in this quietly realized, heart-wrenching drama from director Ned Benson.

Following a horrific tragedy, the enviable marriage between Conor (James McAvoy), a restaurant owner, and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain), a returning college student, begins to fall apart. With each day worse than the last, their connection starts deteriorating, until one day Eleanor just disappears …

Benson presents his protagonists’ experience comprehensively in two separate, feature-length chapters. While it’s essential to see both parts — a total run-time of three hours — to experience the complete picture, each chapter has its own unique tone, appropriate to its corresponding piece of the puzzle. Part mystery, part emotional drama, “Him” tells the story of a befuddled man longing to reconnect with his estranged wife. On the other hand, “Her” is a character study about a woman trying to reinvent herself.

Aided by a terrific supporting cast — Ciarán Hinds, Bill Hader, Viola Davis, Jess Weixler, William Hurt, and Isabelle Huppert — “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her” packs a strong emotional punch. Vivid cinematography and a dry, honest wit perfectly accent the top-notch acting skills of Chastain and McAvoy, both in fine form here. Evoking the long-term effects of loss, and raising questions important to anyone attempting a lasting relationship, Benson’s feature debut is personal, layered and insightful — from all perspectives.

This work in progress is designed to be viewed as episodes in any sequence, and will also be screened at the Festival in reverse order as “Her and Him” on Tuesday, September 10.

Text by Cameron Bailey; photo courtesy of TIFF

TIFF Preview: Streep, Roberts, Letts, and Wells make a fearsome foursome

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Here is another biggie I’ll miss: “August: Osage County.” I can’t say this one intrigues me as much as some of the other major TIFF entries, but how can one not be intrigued by this cast and this material?

An astounding ensemble cast — Meryl Streep, Sam Shepard, Julia Roberts and Juliette Lewis — star in this adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts has spent the past two decades telling stories that are audacious and inventive, hilarious and harrowing, deeply disturbing and, in their own wicked way, heartfelt. When the movies finally discovered Letts a few years back, they brought his singularly bleak and insightful vision of the American family to a broader audience. “Bug” and the highly controversial “Killer Joe,” both directed by William Friedkin, were pitched so as to incite maximum discomfort. The star-studded “August: Osage County,” based on the play for which Letts received the Pulitzer as well as a Tony Award, is no less bracing a tale of life, death, and familial strife, but let’s just say it’s a crowd-pleaser by comparison — and one of this year’s must-see films.

Beverly Weston (played by Sam Shepard, another great American playwright, whose influence upon Letts is unmistakable) is an Oklahoma poet battling alcoholism, while his wife Violet (Meryl Streep) suffers from cancer and a new-found drug dependency. Not long after hiring a live-in caregiver for Violet, Beverly vanishes, prompting the family to unite in a search that ends with a morbid discovery. Mother and daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis) are left to deal with the aftermath, and each other — the four women have never exactly seen eye-to-eye.

The film’s first-rate ensemble cast shines under John Wells, whose direction exudes the same down-to-earth frankness and great affection for complex characters displayed in “The Company Men,” his memorable feature debut. You might not find yourself wishing you were a member of the Weston clan, but you’ll likely recognize something of your own family in them.

Photo courtesy of TIFF

Weekend Preview: Riddick, shmiddick — J.D. Salinger is this week’s most intriguing character

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As I mentioned last week, things are a bit shorter here with TIFF taking up so much of my time. (I’M THERE RIGHT NOW!) Here is a quick look at what’s opening this weekend.

“Riddick”: Vin Diesel is in a great place career-wise thanks to “Fast & Furious,” but now comes a test — the return of the character he last portrayed in the flop “Chronicles of Riddick.” This new film seems to eschew the pomp of “Chronicles” for the more visceral thrills of “Pitch Black,” and should prove a solid earner. But “Riddick” is not the film opening this week that I’m intrigued by. That honor goes to …

“Salinger”: If the New York Times story is accurate, Shane Salerno’s J.D. Salinger documentary features the bombshell that the author has five books ready to be published posthumously. That is huge, truly, and the other reveals promised by the long-awaited documentary make this a major fall release.

Buffalo Film Seminars: Another week, another classic: On September 10, the BFS screens Jean Renoir “The Grand Illusion” (1937).

The Screening Room: Despite Mickey Rooney’s best efforts, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is charming — The Screening Room shows the film at 7:30 p.m. tonight, tomorrow, and Tuesday. On Thursday at 7:30, a first-run documentary, “The Rep,” is showing. I must admit, I was not familiar with it. Here is a description:

“The film follows the lives of three uber film geeks during the first year of operations of a single-screen repertory cinema. Dubbed ‘The Underground Cinema’ by its gang of misfits, Alex, Charlie, and Nigel will stop at nothing to see their theatre succeed. In the face of strong competition from big box theatres, local cinematheques and home video, it’s a constant struggle to stay afloat. Throw in 12-hour workdays, having no semblance of a personal life and all the normal stresses of working day in/day out with the same people … things couldn’t be much more of an uphill battle.”

VOD: Robin Wright and Naomi Watts fall for each other’s sons — spicy! — in “Adore,” the long-delayed horror film “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” debuts,

Etc.: For the latest releases at Dipson’s Amherst and Eastern Hills theaters, visit the official Dipson site.

Photo courtesy of the Weinstein Company

 

TIFF 2013: For me, it all starts tomorrow morning …

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Tomorrow (Friday) morning, my colleague Jared Mobarak and I head north, and get started with day one — for us — of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Three days seems sad when compared with all of the treats offered over the festival’s 11 days. Today, alone, sees screenings of “The Fifth Estate,” “Blue is the Warmest Colour,” and “The Past,” among others, three movies I will miss.

But I am thrilled to be able to attend at all, and it’s one of my most eagerly awaited events of the year. Leaving my family for a few days is difficult, but I always have a thrilling experience. Although I wish it was going to be cooler outside …

This year, I will be writing reviews for Indiewire’s The Playlist (they already have one ready to go from me, and I hope to file three from the fest) and The Film Stage (I have filed two, and will likely be writing one or two more). I will also be Tweeting and posting on FilmSwoon’s Facebook page. I will be writing on this site as much as I can during the festival, although it is likely the majority of my TIFF writing here won’t take place until I return home. Lastly, as I have for the last six years — this is my seventh festival — I will cap it all off with a feature in the November issue of Buffalo Spree.

It does not appear that I will be doing any interviews while I’m there, which actually makes the whole process much easier. Instead, I’ll be watching, writing, waiting, and, occasionally, sleeping and eating.

I have public tickets for two films: Catherine Breillat’s “Abuse of Weakness” and John Ridley’s Jimi Hendrix biopic “All Is By My Side” (I also have tickets for Francois Ozon’s “Young and Beautiful,” but a conflict has developed, and I’ll likely miss it.) And I am supposed to have a ticket lined up for a very special screening on Sunday night: Godfrey Reggio’s “Visitors,” accompanied by members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

The rest of my lineup is comprised of press screenings, and what makes those particularly exciting is the sheer unpredictability of it all. I have never NOT gotten into a press screening, since I tend to arrive early, but this year could be different. There are several “priority” screenings that I may or may not gain admittance to, and there are also some I will certainly arrive to later than I’d like. Plus, I don’t know exactly what time we are arriving tomorrow, or leaving Sunday night.

Anyway, here are the films I MIGHT be seeing — and it’s a stellar, albeit offbeat, list.

FRIDAY:

  • I will likely start with the documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” or, if I’m too late, the Cannes hit “Omar” or James Franco’s “Child of God.” (In a perfect world, I’d be able to catch “Like Father, Like Son” at 9 a.m., but that should prove impossible.)
  • Next up is one of my great TIFF conundrums: Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day” or Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin.” I lean toward Reitman in this case. Yes, his Joyce Maynard adaptation will be opening wide, but not until Christmastime, and it could be an Oscar player. “Sin” will be much more difficult to see … But I’ve been intrigued by “Labor Day” from the get-go. (Other options at this time are Ralph Fiennes’ “Invisible Woman” and Ron Howard’s “Rush.)
  • Now, things get even trickier. If I decide to try to attend the 6:30 priority press screening of “Prisoners,” I may not have time for a film in between — I am interested in both “All Cheerleaders Die” and “Letter to Damascus,” but wedded to neither. And if I miss “Prisoners,” my early evening options are limited at best. To make matters even more difficult, “Prisoners” opens in just a few weeks! But it is the best option at the time, for sure.
  • However that turns out, I will end the night by meeting Jared at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for “Abuse of Weakness.”

SATURDAY:

  • How the day will begin remains to be seen. My No. 1 goal is to get into the priority press screening of Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” at 9:30 a.m. Doing this means arriving early, and missing the morning’s other offerings, which include “Parkland” and “Attila Marcel.” If for some reason I do not get in, I may try to force my way into “Hateship Loveship” or “Horns” a few minutes late.
  • “Slave” should keep me from seeing “Dallas Buyers Club” at 11:30, unless I am able to sprint from the McQueen (it runs to 11:43 a.m.) and grab a late seat. It is more likely that my second film of the day, then, will be “Palo Alto,” Cold Eyes,” or “Bad Words” (another priority screening).
  • Next? I may have time for the acclaimed “Miss Violence,” but either way, I have a must-see (I am reviewing it) at 3:45: “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” After the Idris Elba-starrer, I’ll take a break and do some writing, before ending the day at the Elgin with …
  • “All Is By My Side,” starring Andre Benjamin as Hendrix. An interesting day, to say the least.

SUNDAY:

  • First film of the day? I have not yet decided between Daniel Radcliffe in “The F Word” and Elisabeth Olsen in “Therese.”
  • But I am certainly seeing “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner’s “You Are Here” at 11 a.m. It stars, oddly, Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Poehler.
  • I am reviewing “Here,” so I plan to give myself a bit of time afterwards. That means the middle of my day is seriously up in the air. I am interested in Eli Roth’s “The Green Inferno” at 1:30, Ciaran Hinds in “The Sea” at 2, and Keira Knightly and Mark Ruffalo in “Can a Song Save Your Life?” at 2:15, but my likely play is to wait and catch Woody Allen in John Turturro’s “Fading Gigolo” at 3:45.
  • As long as the ticket comes through, “Visitors” at the Elgin is next. I’ll be working on my review of that film on the drive home, and perhaps the following morning.
  • Jared and I debated public tickets for “Night Moves” at 9, but as long as we still have the stamina, I’d like to end my TIFF13 experience with as wild a pick as possible: South Korean “Pieta” director Kim Ki-duk’s “Moebius.”

That’s how things may, or may not, shape up. Adding some screenrs I was able to watch online (and more I may watch next week), it’s a helluva year. And while I am missing some biggies, like “Gravity” (it screens in Buffalo soon), “Under the Skin,” “The Double,” “Only Lovers Left,” and many others, I am satisfied with my options.

If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t see ’em all.

Much more to come, here, on Twitter, on Facebook, and beyond. Happy TIFF!

Photo Credit: Maris Mezulis for TIFF

TIFF Preview: Jonathan Glazer and Scarlet Johannson team up for “Under the Skin”

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Jonathan Glazer directed two of the most fascinating films of recent years: “Sexy Beast” and “Birth.” His new film, “Under the Skin,” will not be showing while I’m at TIFF, but  I could not be more intrigued — reviews have been fascinatingly mixed.

Scarlett Johannson stars as a voracious alien seductress who scours remote highways and backroads for human prey, in this sci-fi thriller from director Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”).

Fans of Jonathan Glazer’s “Sexy Beast” and “Birth” have been anticipating “Under the Skin” with a yearning usually reserved for superhero franchises. Based on Michel Faber’s acclaimed novel, the story’s premise is perfectly suited to a director known for compression, focus, and cool shocks.

On England’s lonely back roads, a beautiful woman (Scarlett Johansson also appearing at the Festival in “Don Jon”) stalks unwitting men. Her identity and her motives unclear, she is simply, and quite literally, a sexual threat. Her eyes deadened but alert, she prowls night streets and deserted locales in a white van, seeking male victims. More could be said about the plot, but it’s best to allow “Under the Skin” to reveal itself. From its arresting first image — a pure, white pinpoint of light — it expands outward to become an increasingly absorbing mystery. It’s also a Rorschach test for everything one might fear about relations between men and women.

Johansson is sometimes cast for her physical sensuality, and Glazer makes ample use of that here. But the film is anything but lascivious. Having directed landmark music videos for Radiohead and Massive Attack, he was known as a supreme stylist even before his feature films. Here, he offers shades of Kubrick and Hitchcock in his depiction of sexuality, capturing a cool, predatory impulse rather than simple heat. For that matter, Under the Skin shows little interest in simply arousing the audience, be they enamored of Glazer, fantasy fiction, or Johansson. It proceeds at its own rhythm, accumulating one eerie detail on top of another, serving up sometimes baroque encounters between predator and prey, pushing inevitably towards its disturbing conclusion.

Text by Cameron Bailey; photo courtesy of TIFF

TIFF Preview: Reitman returns, with Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet

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Sadly, I might not get to see Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day,” and as you’ll see from this description, that would be a major bummer. It sounds wonderful. (Note that there is no Wednesday Round-Up this week; it will return next week.)

The latest film from Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air,” “Juno”) centers on 13-year-old Henry (newcomer Gattlin Griffith) as he confronts the pangs of adolescence while struggling to care for his reclusive mother, Adele (Kate Winslet). On a back-to-school shopping trip, Henry and Adele encounter Frank (Josh Brolin), a man both intimidating and clearly in need of help, who convinces them to take him into their home. The events of this long weekend will shape each of them for the rest of their lives.

For many of us, “Labor Day” weekend evokes bittersweet memories of first loves, family vacations, and a final gasp of freedom before the new school year. For 13-year-old Henry and his reclusive, divorced mother, Adele, it offers a chance for the happiness that they have long lived without.

With the first day of school approaching, Adele (the formidable Kate Winslet) and Henry (newcomer Gattlin Griffith) have ventured on a rare outing together to buy him some new clothes, when the boy is approached by Frank (the brooding Josh Brolin) — whose bloodied forehead and clear sense of desperation signal the need for help. Setting aside their suspicions, Henry and his mother reluctantly bring the stranger home, only to discover they got more than they bargained for. It’s not long before they find themselves hostages of an escaped felon, and convicted murderer. And yet there’s something comforting about Frank. What begins as a kidnapping slowly evolves into something else.

Festival audiences first fell in love with Jason Reitman as a feature director when he premiered his debut, “Thank You For Smoking,” here in 2005. With each subsequent film, his characterizations have grown richer and more sincere. Labor Day completes this metamorphosis, offering one of the most elegantly observed dramas of the year.

Bringing Joyce Maynard’s novel to the screen with refined confidence, Reitman impressively balances the story’s dramatic and romantic tension. With nuanced performances from an all-star cast (also including Tobey Maguire and James Van Der Beek), and precise editing, the individual experiences of the film’s three central characters are seamlessly woven together over these final days of summer, as each attempts to escape their own personal prison.

Text by MICHÈLE MAHEUX; photo courtesy of TIFF

TIFF Preview: Ralph Fiennes is Dickens in “The Invisible Woman”

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I’m posting some rundowns from the TIFF site as the festival kicks into high-gear this week. Here is one I hope to see, directed by Ralph Fiennes: “The Invisible Woman.”

Ralph Fiennes directs and stars as Charles Dickens in this opulent period drama about the great novelist’s passionate, years-long secret affair with the young actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones; “Like Crazy”).

Actress Nelly Ternan was performing in London’s Haymarket Theatre when she was first spotted by Charles Dickens, who subsequently cast her in a production of “The Frozen Deep.” The year was 1857. Dickens was 45 and had been married some 20 years. Ternan was 17. The two began an affair, which was kept a secret from the general public for the duration of their lives. Theirs has since become one of the great love stories in literary history, as alluring for the speculation it inspires as for the details on record as fact.

Based on Claire Tomalin’s biography of Ternan, scripted by Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady,” “Shame”), and directed by the great English actor Ralph Fiennes — whose directorial debut, “Coriolanus,” screened at the Festival in 2011 — “The Invisible Woman” is a rapturous chronicle of Ternan and Dickens’s relationship, which prompted the end of Dickens’s marriage, survived a train crash, inspired characters and scenarios in some of the author’s most beloved novels, and continued until his death in 1870.

Felicity Jones’s performance as Ternan brims with passion and intelligence — the latter quality being one of the things that drew Dickens to Ternan in the first place. Dickens himself is embodied by Fiennes as a complicated artist torn between his desires and ideals and his need to uphold tradition and avoid scandal. Enveloped in opulent period detail, “The Invisible Woman” brings us closer to this giant of nineteenth-century prose — and to the woman who sustained his lust for life in his final years.

Text by MICHÈLE MAHEUX; photo courtesy of TIFF