Robert De Niro: What just happened?

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A friend texted me during the World Series, minutes after a “Last V egas” commercial aired, with the following observation: “Robert De Niro’s latter-day sins are so bad I feel it takes away from his great old stuff. This Vegas movie looks like he lost a bet and had to take the role. Get a new manager!”

Whether “Last Vegas,” which co-stars Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline, is a hit (or, dare I say it, a good film) or not, it certainly represents another strange choice for the star of “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.”

This is not a new criticism, but it is worth revisiting. What did happen to De Niro, exactly? Looking at his last two decades of work, 1995 appears to be the last time in which his films really, truly mattered. That was the year of two films that were underrated upon release, and are both now rightfully considered to be classics: “Casino” and “Heat.” Take a look at what followed:

  • 1995     Casino
  • 1995     Heat
  • 1996     The Fan
  • 1996     Sleepers
  • 1996     Marvin’s Room
  • 1997     CopLand
  • 1997     Jackie Brown
  • 1997     Wag the Dog
  • 1998     Great Expectations
  • 1998     Ronin
  • 1999     Analyze This
  • 1999     Flawless
  • 2000     The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle
  • 2000     Men of Honor
  • 2000     Meet the Parents
  • 2001     15 Minutes
  • 2001     The Score
  • 2002     Showtime
  • 2002     City by the Sea
  • 2002     Analyze That
  • 2004     Godsend
  • 2004     Shark Tale
  • 2004     Meet the Fockers
  • 2004     The Bridge of San Luis Rey
  • 2005     Hide and Seek
  • 2006     Arthur and the Invisibles
  • 2006     The Good Shepherd
  • 2007     Stardust
  • 2008     Righteous Kill
  • 2008     What Just Happened
  • 2009     Everybody’s Fine
  • 2010     Machete
  • 2010     Stone
  • 2010     Little Fockers
  • 2011     Manuale d’amore 3
  • 2011     Killer Elite
  • 2011     Limitless
  • 2011     New Year’s Eve
  • 2012     Being Flynn
  • 2012     Red Lights
  • 2012     Freelancers
  • 2012     Silver Linings Playbook
  • 2013     The Big Wedding
  • 2013     Killing Season
  • 2013     The Family
  • 2013     Last Vegas

It is an odd, head-scratching list, is it not? There are many solid films here, but even the greats — “Jackie Brown,” “Wag the Dog,” last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook” — feel as if any other actor of De Niro’s age could have played the parts effectively. Some of the films are underrated, especially “Great Expectations,” “Ronin,” “Stone,” and even the De Niro-directed “Good Shepherd.”

But my goodness. Look at the misses! There is a stretch of time, from 1999 to 2006, that is absurdly bad — and that was pre-“Righteous Kill”!

It is too easy to say this was paycheck work, although I am sure that played a part. There must have been something in each of these that attracted De Niro. I think the more likely explanation is that he does not care to be challenged.

Look at the directors of these films. After Scorsese, Mann, Tarantino, and perhaps Cuaron, where are the heavyweights? Barry Levinson no longer fits on that list, and I think Luc Besson is in the same category. Not until David O’Russell is there a real giant — and he helped bring De Niro his first Oscar nomination in years.

For the sake of his legacy, let us hope Robert De Niro’s planned re-team with Martin Scorsese, “The Irishman,” moves into production soon. It can’t end like this. Can it?

Image courtesy of CBS

Breaking, too: Eclectic boogalo!

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For the first several months of my site, I posted a weekly round-up of film-etc. stories that were on my radar. I have not had time to do that lately, but that does not mean I have not been reading like a mad man. I retweet many of these on my Twitter page, and also post some on Facebook. But the last week or so has been especially interesting. Here are six of the biggies that you need to be aware of:

Each one of these is fascinating, and they have all helped make this, in my opinion, the most fascinating filmdom fall in some time …

Matt Damon and George Clooney in “The Monuments Men” (Claudette Barius / Sony)

Review: “12 Years a Slave” is the best film so far this year

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Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” has finally hit (some) American theaters, and the film has already had a busy fall, showing at festivals in Telluride, New York, and Toronto. I reviewed it for The Film Stage, and I was thrilled to share my thoughts.

As the end credits rolled during TIFF’s first press and industry screening of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, a peculiar thing occurred: very few people moved. Some quickly sprinted down the stairs, hurrying for their next screening, but many, like yours truly, just sat and stared, feeling emotionally overwhelmed by the experience. The film is that kind of success, a stunningly realized achievement that will clearly rank among the finest — if not the finest — films of 2013. McQueen, the British helmer behind Hunger and Shame, has brought America’s most shameful period to the screen with a fury and authenticity the likes of which audiences have never seen.

Perhaps a story of slavery set along these particular lines was necessary to truly connect with modern viewers, for the protagonist of this true tale, Solomon Northup, was a free man sold into slavery in 1841. (The film itself based on Northup’s eponymous account.) Solomon, played by the great Chiwetel Ejiofor, was a musician in Saratoga, New York, a respected husband and father of two. When offered the lucrative opportunity to perform with a traveling circus in Washington, D.C., he cannot help but accept. But in a stunning jump cut, we shift from a wine-fueled dinner to Solomon in nightmarish shackles, cruelly betrayed by the gentlemen who recruited him. Despite the almost 150-year time differential, the situation of a free man made enslaved is identifiable; there is a moment when Ejiofor looks directly into McQueen’s camera, and it hammers home the feeling that Solomon is one of us, and we are Solomon.

And whether one already knows how Northup’s story ended or not, we are an eyewitness to his brutal journey. One of Solomon’s early encounters after losing his freedom is with slimy trader (Paul Giamatti), with whom Solomon is rather lucky to have been sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a plantation owner who, about as likable as an onscreen slave owner can be, treats him with respect, even something resembling kindness. But, after an altercation with a monster in Ford’s employ (an ever-weasel-y Paul Dano), Solomon is sent to the cruel, complex, diabolical Edwin Epps. In what is perhaps the actor’s most effective performance yet, he is played by McQueen’s Hunger and Shame star, Michael Fassbender.

The majority of the film takes place on Epps’s horrific plantation. Here, we meet Epps’s equally vile wife (Sarah Paulson gives a performance unlike any she’s delivered thus far), the sweet-natured Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), and, eventually, a Canadian carpenter played with confident efficiency by 12 Years’ producer, Brad Pitt. All are memorable, especially Fassbender’s Epps and Nyong’o’s Patsey, but there is no one who commands the screen like Ejiofor. Not every actor could make a shouted line like “I will not fall into despair” work, but nothing which comes out of his mouth sounds rote or unbelievable; the man is in almost every scene, and he nails all featuring his presence.

The film is, then, a tremendous achievement for its actors and directors, but also for screenwriter John Ridley, composer Hans Zimmer, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, and, frankly, virtually everyone else involved. It’s rare to say a movie has no false notes, but such is the case with 12 Years a Slave, a film that, days later, may still leave viewers shaking. When was the last time you experienced a movie that truly lingered in the memory? McQueen has crafted such an epic, and, in doing so, has made a 21st-century masterpiece. This is likely to be the most moving cinematic experience of the year, and if there is any justice, McQueen’s film will be required viewing in American classrooms — itself something of an ironic statement, given that McQueen is British. You want to see, hear, and feel slavery? Here is the system, in all its awful components.

The art of trying to get Oscar’s attention

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I have posted a number of Oscar-related tidbits lately, which perhaps makes it seem as if I am an awards obsessive. I don’t think that’s the case, but I do love the season. It is full of hype, hyperbole, foolishness, and catastrophe, and it generally ends with the wrong films being honored.

Many greats get lost in the shuffle, and here is a fun site that documents a bunch: “This Had Oscar Buzz.”

You can also spot many coulda-been-a-contenders in these “for your consideration” galleries from Awards Daily. The artwork for many of these ads is striking, and often superior to what was actually used in advertisements for the films.

Of course, sometimes the Academy gets it right — see the above ad, for the Trent Reznor-Atticus Finch score for Fincher’s “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

Moonage daydreams, dead ringers, and two Davids

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Two of my favorite Davids are being recognized this fall, and I had the pleasure of writing about both of them, and the exhibitions applauding their work, in the October issue of Buffalo Spree. 

They are two of the boldest, most willfully chameleonic, most gobsmackingly brilliant artists of the past forty-plus years. Their work has thrilled, confounded, frustrated, and moved audiences worldwide. They have each refused to be boxed in by artistic convention, choosing instead to mount risky, game-changing projects that are the definition of challenging. And yes—they are both named David.

Davids Bowie and Cronenberg are the subjects of new exhibitions in Toronto this autumn, a cosmically wondrous occurrence for music, film, and art fans throughout North America. Bowie, of course, needs no introduction; he is a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and cultural icon who has sold more than 140 million albums, the pansexual (perhaps not, but just go with it) genius behind “Space Oddity” and “Heroes.” He is Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, and, simply, Bowie. Cronenberg, on the other hand, might not be a household name outside of Toronto, but you have undoubtedly experienced his work: The FlyCrash (the good one, about car-crash sex—not the awful one that stole a Best Picture Oscar), ScannersThe Dead ZoneVideodromeEastern PromisesDead RingersA History of Violence.

Arriving at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) for its North American debut after an acclaimed run at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, David Bowie is includes the Thin White Duke’s original stage costumes, instruments, album art, and music videos. The show spans five decades and features more than 300 objects from the singer’s personal archive. As it should be for such a multidimensional artist, it is a multi-media show that studies his contributions to the worlds of fashion, film, theater, and art, as well as music. Bowie himself maintains an archive of more than 75,000 items, which David Bowie is curators Victoria Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh delved into for the exhibition. (That’s a heck of an archive; Kubrick would have been impressed.) Some of the items chosen include more than fifty stage costumes, including his Ziggy Stardust bodysuits; set designs created for the Diamond Dogs tour (1974); album sleeve art; and, of course, film and video excerpts. Everything but Bowie’s gall bladder, basically.

Why Bowie? There are likely as many reasons as there are young dudes, but when I posed the question to AGO CEO and director Matthew Teitelbaum, he zeroed in on the performer’s constant evolution: “David Bowie is a profoundly visual performer, and the identities he has created for himself over the last five decades have had an enormous impact on contemporary art and culture. A master of sustained reinvention, he has consistently collaborated with the most significant personalities in fashion, design, theater, and art. His willingness to defy genres has made his career a barometer for cutting-edge performance art.” The exhibition comes on the heels of an exhibition of punk poetess Patti Smith’s photography, and Teitelbaum sees Bowie is as an ideal follow-up: “The exhibition speaks to the AGO’s commitment to do more than just show art, but to talk about art and the evolution of visual culture.”

Not too far from AGO, at the Toronto International Film Festival’s [TIFF] stunning Bell Lightbox, is The CronenbergProject, a multi-platform celebration of the Canadian filmmaker’s work, including a comprehensive film exhibition titled David Cronenberg: Evolution, curated by TIFF CEO and director Piers Handling and TIFF artistic director Noah Cowan. TIFF’s first major original exhibition is to be followed by an international tour, Evolution traces, organizers say, Cronenberg’s “development and progression as a filmmaker through the themes of physical and psychological transformation that define his cinema; from telepaths and scientists to television producers and twin doctors.” In other words, audiences can expect material from throughout his career, from his early “body horror” classics through his highprofile eighties and nineties work and more recent efforts.

Cronenberg has long been involved with TIFF, and his importance to the festival and Canadian film culture cannot be overstated, Cowan told me: “He is one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers, and he represents Canadian cinema at its very best. TIFF has had the immense pleasure of working alongside him for the last thirty years, celebrating his films at our festival and others, but also preserving and archiving pieces from his complete film history in a special collection as part of our Film Reference Library, which has yielded some of the most spectacular elements of David Cronenberg:Evolution. The Cronenberg Project is the culmination of this relationship and we are thankful to David for working with us to create such a rich and allencompassing celebration of his life’s work.”

Other elements of the Cronenberg Project include an experiential virtual museum, David Cronenberg: Virtual Exhibition; a full retrospective of the director’s films; an interactive digital experience, Body/Mind/Change; and an art exhibition curated by Noah Cowan and David Liss titled David Cronenberg: Transformation, featuring six new TIFFcommissioned artworks by leading Canadian and international contemporary artists who share David Cronenberg’s inspirations from literature and philosophy. The latter will be on display at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) through December 29 (mocca.ca).

It is hard to top the typewriterwith-orifice from Naked Lunch, but as Cowan explains, there are numerous stand-outs: “There are so many of these objects that matter to me dearly—the bondage Mugwump in his sarcophagus will be a ‘wow’ moment for many people and the surgical tools from Dead Ringers are probably the most disturbing items in the exhibition. But my favorite material probably comes from ExistenZ—that film represents such a complete vision and we have an exhaustive amount of gooey, futuristic stuff so the film really comes alive again.”

Interestingly, Body/Mind/Change “immerses users/audiences in a ‘Cronenbergian’ world across three platforms—online, mobile, and real life—through an ‘artificial intelligence recommendation engine’ called POD (Personal On-Demand).” Intrigued? Sign up at bodymindchange.ca to register for a POD. Note also that Evolution, the opening celebration for the exhibition David Cronenberg: Evolution, opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on October 30 with live entertainment, interactive art installations, cocktails, and hors d’oeuvres. Tickets are on sale attiff.net/cronenbergparty, with proceeds supporting film programming at TIFF along with education and community initiatives. This is certainly relevant; The Cronenberg Project serves as a reminder that TIFF is more than just a film festival. It is a year-round cinema, gallery, and cultural hub that has devoted space to James Bond, Chinese cinema, and even a kids’ film festival. In other words, the Lightbox does not go dark once the film festival concludes—far from it.

Incidentally, the timing of the Bowie and Cronenberg exhibitions is noteworthy. In March, Bowie emerged from hibernation and released—with only a few weeks’ notice—his triumphant return to music, a somber, spectacular album called The Next Day. Meanwhile, Cronenberg, whose last film, Cosmopolis, starred some dude named Robert Pattinson, is shooting his most high-profile movie in some time: Map to the Stars features Mia Wasikowska, Pattinson, Julianne Moore, and John Cusack. (Incidentally, the children of both Cronenberg and Bowie have made artistic waves during recent years. Brandon Cronenberg’s first film, Antiviral, won an award for Best Canadian First Feature at TIFF 2012, while Caitlin Cronenberg is a noted photographer whose work has appeared in Elle and Vogue Italia. Bowie’s son Duncan Jones—the Bowie formerly known as Zowie—directed the acclaimed films Moon and Source Code.)

David Bowie is opened on September 23 and runs through November 27 at the AGO; visit ago.net for more info.The Cronenberg Project runs from November 1 to January 19, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; see tiff.net for details.

BRIAN DUFFY COURTESY OF © DUFFY ARCHIVE

K2 documentary “The Summit” is a gripping, emotional experience

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Much of the praise centered around the world-conquering “Gravity” involves its status as a cinematic experience — the feeling that the audience is there, to some degree. The documentary “The Summit” is not in 3D, and it’s not showing on IMAX screens, nor does it feature major stars. But make no mistake, it too is an experience — an emotional one. (The IFC Films release opens today at the Amherst Dipson.)

Nick Ryan’s film opens with sobering words: “11 mountain climbers died on K2 in early August, 2008. It was the deadliest 48 hours in the history of climbing the Savage Mountain.” K2 is located in northern Pakistan, and its status as second-highest mountain in the world has long made it an alluring target for climbers. But it is extremely dangerous even for veterans — the film refers to an area known as the “Deathzone” — and the site of many tragedies.

The disaster that took place in 2008 is the subject of the film, and controversy still swirls around what exactly went down, and how. That debate is a part of the film, especially near the end. But above all else, “The Summit” is a tribute to those who died, and to the heroism demonstrated by so many involved. As one climber puts it, “The question you should ask yourself: What would you do?”

Without question, the late Ger McDonnell is the most fascinating figure here. “[I’m] so happy to be here, I could almost cry,” he announces when arriving at the top, and it is easy to understand his enthusiasm. The film presents some backstory on the mountain, and it is clear that it is an almost incomparable physical feat.

But that means disaster can strike quickly, and without warning. The first time a climber falls, the effect is startling, as unexpected for the viewer as it was for those involved, for after it occurs … everything stops. From that moment on, the film portrays a desperate attempt at survival (the reenactments actually work well, which is not always the case) but also stops to look at the effect on the folks left at home, waiting to hear what was happening.

It is a sad story, one plagued by moral issues involved in helping — or not — and tinged with regret. After things had ended came various accounts, some of which did not add up; McDonnell’s brother-in-law wonders “how so many people on the mountain could have different stories about the same event.” Some individuals do not come off well, while a few others emerge as real heroes. Ger McDonnell had put this complexity into words before his K2 experience: “Just because you survive a mountain doesn’t make you an expert … when you weren’t there, you don’t know. Only the mountain knows.”

While at times a bit difficult to follow — there are many, many individuals involved — “The Summit” is a gripping, slickly shot and edited production, and a documentary that feels vibrant, direct, and emotionally involving. Even knowing how this true story ended, the journey is an unpredictable one. As the late climber Walter Bonatti puts it, “Oh, K2 … It was full of surprises.”

A “Fresh” Hubbard Film Society screening

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Back in July, I discussed East Aurora’s Hubbard Film Society, a group whose goal, as stated on the HFS website, “is to provide high quality art and foreign films followed by insightful discussion on a monthly basis. The Society currently presents a film the second Sunday of every month.”

Next up, on Sunday, October 20 (which is actually the third Sunday of the month), is a screening of the documentary “Fresh,” described like so:

“[The film] celebrates the farmers, thinkers and business people across America who are re-inventing our food system. Each has witnessed the rapid transformation of our agriculture into an industrial model, and confronted the consequences: food contamination, environmental pollution, depletion of natural resources, and morbid obesity. Forging healthier, sustainable alternatives, they offer a practical vision for a future of our food and our planet.”

Many of my friends and colleagues will be especially interested in this one, and the discussion that will follow. There are so many of these unique screening groups locally, and the HFS is surely one of the most ambitious.

The film will be presented at the Parkdale Elementary School, 141 Girard Avenue in East Aurora. (A new location.) Tickets are $6 for members, $8 for nonmembers. For questions, or to book a group, call 655-0420 or write to bradleys@buffalo.edu.

Creepy cool: Local indie “Elizabeth Bathory” makes its bloody debut

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I grew up making movies with first my great-grandfather’s giant, honkin’, over-the-shoulder camcorder, and then our family’s Hi-8 camera. Some of my favorite childhood memories involve making these movies, and I often wonder what I would be up to if I had been born in, say, 1990, instead of 1980.

So I love to see news of new, locally-produced independent films. I don’t know the whole story of the “Elizabeth Bathory” movie that makes its debut on Saturday, October 19, but I love the idea of this (partially) Kickstarter-funded project showing at the Market Arcade. The film’s Facebook page and website offer a nice breakdown of the story and production, and it’s all creepy cool.

Here is a synopsis:

“It is 1611 and Katarina has been thrown into a dungeon in Hungary without reason. She discovers that another young woman, Anika, has already been trapped there for weeks. The stagnant dungeon air is soon disturbed as looming feelings of sinister forces plague them and distant memories of the horrific legend of Countess Elizabeth Bathory torment them in this psychological horror. Their only hope is trust in each other and trust in God. But is that enough?”

I dig it, and cannot wait to hear how the Sunday screening goes. Congrats to all involved.

 

Ticket info:

7 pm. on Saturday October 19 at the Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre

($10 for a ticket to the premier; $25 for a ticket to the premier and the after party)

“Gravity” kills: Thoughts on Alfonso Cuaron’s dazzling hit

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I skipped Alfonso Cuaron’s long-anticipated “Gravity” at TIFF13 due to scheduling issues, and also because I knew it would be coming my way soon. I skipped a couple Buffalo area screenings because I was not sure if I wanted to see it in that context. But I finally saw it, and I am glad I waited. It was a very, very good film, one that in some ways feels immensely overrated, and in others, not at all. It is a dazzling achievement, and something he, stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and everyone else involved (especially cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) should be applauded for. It is certainly flawed, but its successes are so overwhelming that it is hard to be troubled by its missteps.

“Gravity” is a film that has already inspired writing, debate, criticism, and praise, but here are a few thoughts from me anyway (SPOILERS throughout):

It’s an experience, above all else. Several folks had told me the only way to see it was on IMAX 3D, and I believe they were correct. How would “Gravity” play on 2D? Or on TV, for that matter? I’m not sure, but I simply cannot imagine it would be as effective.

The audience can play a major role in one’s enjoyment of any film, and I believe that is especially true here. I saw it in an almost-full theater, but the viewers were attentive and quiet. There are moments that could inspire snickering, especially a tear-soaked Bullock monologue. I was very pleased to not deal with that crap.

Some of the dialogue was shockingly bad, but I wonder if that was somewhat intentional. Clooney, especially, almost seemed to be playing off of the idea of the charmingly rough-around-the-edges astronaut. Perhaps were meant to find his chatter as lame as it sounded?

That being said, he has some nice moments, especially (SPOILER) his late-film “re-appearance.” I think that was one of Clooney’s most perfect bits as an actor, period. (According to this Vulture interview with Cuaron, Clooney wrote his dialogue for this scene.)

It was difficult to fall right to sleep after arriving home from seeing the film, so I pondered. And I thought of a question that has a rather obvious answer, but still seemed worth pondering: Is it possible Bullock’s Ryan actually died when Clooney reappeared? And could the very end, the fall to Earth and her subsequent walk, be considered some kind of “heaven/afterlife” metaphor? Apparently the answer is … No. Here is Cuaron, in that same Vulture interview:

“For me, there was an ending and the ending was: She walks. It’s the first moment in the film that you see her walking. The film was a metaphor of rebirth; literally, at the end, she goes from a fetal position [earlier in the film, when she floats after undressing in the space station], then in the water [shot at Lake Powell, Arizona, with significant postproduction alterations to make it green and lush and butterfly-filled], to come out, crawl, go on her knees, and then stand on her two feet and walk again. You know, it was a bit polemic at some point with some people, with a kind of jaded, more mainstream thing, people saying, “But how do we know that she is going to be fine? How do we know that she is getting safely home? How do we know that she is not going to be kidnapped?” I said, “I don’t care, she is walking now!” I want to believe that if she survived what she survived … she’s equipped to deal with adversities.”

Long story short, my theory is a no-go!

Speaking of rebirth, Matt Patches ponders the film’s possible religious subtext at Film.Com. I can’t say I felt that, but it’s a very interesting argument, and one that would make a second viewing more meaningful.

Could “Gravity” be a Best Picture Oscar winner? It’s certainly possible, and undoubtedly a nominee. If voters see it as it’s meant to be seen, and find it a nice alternative to darker fare, absolutely. Its enormous, worldwide box-office success only helps in this regard.

Consider Alfonso Cuaron’s filmography for a moment:

  • 1991    Sólo con tu pareja
  • 1995    A Little Princess
  • 1998    Great Expectations
  • 2001    Y Tu Mamá También
  • 2004    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  • 2006    Children of Men
  • 2013    Gravity

Seven fascinating films; admittedly, I have had “Sólo con tu pareja” in my rental queue for years and have not watched, but it sounds interesting, and it is a Criterion release. I will even stand by the underrated “Great Expectations.” (Emily Yoshida breaks down Cuaron’s career in a wonderful piece for Grantland.)

The “Yes, but is it realistic?” debate means little to me.

The alternate casting is intriguing. Downey Jr. could have worked, and so could (I HEART) Marion Cottilard, but the other names here all seem wrong in some way.

With “Gravity” and “Captain Phillips” now released, one thing is certain: The fall-winter Oscar rush is here. Let’s enjoy it.

Lastly, I think my favorite writing about “Gravity” comes from the aforementioned Grantland piece by Emily Yoshida. I love this:

“Maybe you find Bullock’s grief for her daughter to be underdeveloped or don’t buy George Clooney’s chill pixie dream astronaut, but you can see the old Cuarón in there through the satellite debris, forever trying to unite the biggest pictures with the most intimate gasps for air. It’s nice to have him back; fancy meeting him up here.”

Grim and unsettling, Prisoners is one of 2013’s best films

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“Prisoners” was one of the best films I saw at TIFF, and may finish the year as one of my faves. That being said, it is such a grim, exhausting effort that I wondered whether or not if it might turn audiences off. Clearly, and happily, I was mistaken. The film earned third place in audience award voting at TIFF, and debuted at No. 1 at the box office. Here is my A- review for The Film Stage.

Prisoners might be the most shockingly dark studio release since Fight Club, a grim, unsettling, occasionally convoluted, but undeniably gripping thriller. The nightmare America of Denis Villeneuve’s film is sadly believable, and it results in a truly moving experience — one that audiences might not see coming. On paper, after all, this Hugh Jackman-Jake Gyllenhaal-starrer looked like just another procedural, a (possible) turkey jammed full of movie-of-the-week stuffing. The trailers were not particularly memorable, the likable Jackman and Gyllenhaal do not always choose their roles wisely, screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski’s only previously filmed screenplay was for Contraband, and even though Villeneuve directed the Oscar-nominated Incendies, he is still a relatively unproven commodity.

From its 153-minute running time to its plot, Prisoners is a film that audiences might be afraid of, particularly after hearing just how dark this story is. But if one gives it a chance, they’ll be rewarded with one of 2013’s most powerful and gut-wrenching surprises. Villeneuve opens things, appropriately, with a father and son hunting trip, and from scene one, it is clear that Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover is an intense individual. A carpenter, he lives a modest life with his wife (Maria Bello), teenage son, and young daughter. Shortly before heading to spend Thanksgiving with their neighbors — a father and mother played by always solid Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, and their daughters — a beat-up camper rumbles down the street, croaking to a stop. When the two family’s young daughters do not return after a trip back to the Dover household, this camper takes on great significance.

The girls, it seems, have disappeared, and a perennially exhausted (at least, he appears this way) Detective Loki, played by a focused Gyllenhaal, is assigned to the case. The camper is quickly found, and with it a suspect — a strange, child-like figure named Alex Jones (a whimpering Paul Dano). Alex lives with his no-nonsense aunt (Melissa Leo), and seems drift in a world all his own. Keller quickly concludes that Jones is the kidnapper, and when he is released, he devises a plan to find the girls. Meanwhile, Loki continues his frustrating search, both families become increasingly despondent, and secrets from the past are slowly unearthed.

If, at this point, Prisoners sounds like many other films in the kidnapped kid genre, rest assured, it is not. This experience is much more grim, much more disturbingly violent, and much more morally and thematically complex, than any recent “thriller.” Part of this is thanks to Guzikowski’s twist-y script, but there is also the work of its leads. Jackman is coming off a wildly successful few months that saw a Best Actor nomination for his Jean Valjean in Les Misérables as well as robust returns for The Wolverine. But in Prisoners, he is shockingly unhinged, giving what is clearly his finest performance as a man who will do anything — anything — to save his daughter. He is matched by Gyllenhaal, whose performance is much more subtle, and no less effective. Loki is the heart of Prisoners, and in many ways Gyllenhaal has the more difficult part.

Villeneuve — who brought another well-received collaboration with Gyllenhaal, Enemy, to TIFF — oversees the sprawling story with commendable restraint…mostly. There are moments when the film loses its balance, and I’m not sure the story holds up to close scrutiny; the plot becomes increasingly convoluted, the villainy a bit over-the-top. But what never flags is the level of emotion, or its visual elegance. The unsung hero of Prisoners is surely its incomparable cinematographer, Roger Deakins. In his hands, simple, ho-hum suburban sights appear positively evil. The film is a visual catalog of deep, dark places — a priest’s hidden basement, grungy campers, tightly shuttered houses in suburbia.

It is also a catalog of fears: dark basements, snakes, hidden doors, bloody clothing, snakes, quasi-torture chambers, snakes. It all comes together to create an emotionally memorable experience. One thing is certain: When Prisoners is finished, expect every parent in the audience to race home and check on their kids. It might seem easy to pull off such a feat — TIFF 2013 certainly had its share of effective children-in-peril movies — but doing so in a way that does not feel manipulative is quite a feat. As difficult to watch as it may be, Prisoners is one of this year’s essential dramas.